The bastards

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I can’t let Passover pass without recording a good crack my mother got off at me over matzoh ball soup. I was telling her that I was trying to raise money for this website when she said, Oh what about the Koch brothers? My mother is no fan of this site, and the crack touches on the fundamental political difference that I have with her (and yes, I’m wringing my oedipal laundry here, at the undignified age of 55, but, so it goes). She believes in “the bastards” theory of political agency.

The bastards is a concept that I believe Jews brought over from Eastern Europe, where we were at the mercy of the czar from above– the bastards– and of the peasants from below. The essential political dilemma of Jewish life, as a segregated minority with financial utility to the larger society, was how to propitiate both these forces without getting caught in the grinder. Caught we were, of course; but Zionism, Communism, integrationism, assimilationism, all these belief systems had their roots in this dilemma. It’s my contention that we had more to fear from below than above, from the nationalist populists becoming resentful and murderous (the Hungarian role in the Holocaust, for instance, had a confiscatory impulse; or just read Isaac Babel’s descriptions of pogroms in the Ukraine), and I have noticed that my mother always treated help well– workers– as I have too, when I was not one myself. But the bastards, the goyim in power, they always received the full measure of our scorn. And just as James Merrill used to speak of a daisy chain of gay poets going back from him to Ginsberg to Auden to Hart Crane to Melville to Whitman, so the bastards had unbroken pedigree in my family’s cultural/political memory from Coolidge to Hoover to Dulles to Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan, right on up to the Bushes and the Koch brothers. These were the real powers in political life; and I think there is some bastard-ism in Chomsky’s analysis and in the New Yorker magazine’s; the New Yorker pilloried the Kochs.

Here is Beryl Satter talking about the bastards in her book, Family Properties, which honors her father Mark, a housing lawyer in Chicago who worked for black people to beat racial discrimination in the ’60s. Satter quotes a Chicago rabbi on what being Jewish means, historically:

When tensions arose between the Polish state and the peasants, Poland’s ruling class could distract the peasants by turning them on the Jews. Similarly, in the United States Jews were excluded from the real sources of power—the senior management of banks, utilities, and insurance companies was overwhelmingly gentile—but were welcome to act as urban middlemen, that is, as ghetto merchants or contract sellers (exploitive real estate businesses)

I would note that Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s father was a spiritual cousin of Mark Satter’s, a housing lawyer who fought for tenants’ rights. While his daughter has few political values that one can discern, apart from Making it.

And this is my chief critique of the Bastards theory of history. We are wealthy and privileged in America. I look around my mother’s seder table and I don’t see her grandfather Philip the tailor or my grandfather Herman the auto mechanic or my grandmother Rose the social worker, no I see entitled people. We are as likely to be the bastards ourselves as the civil rights attorneys filing suits against the bastards. We are not Satter’s middlemen, we are not excluded from the real sources of power. To believe otherwise is a piece of nostalgic self-service.

Our political role has changed. The neoconservatives are the best evidence of this. They hatched the Iraq war. It was their brilliant idea, there can be no question of this. And yet my mother, who with pride ascribes great intellectual powers to Marx and Freud to turn society on its ear from the safety of a Viennese couch or the British Museum, can discern no such social power in Abrams, Feith, Kagan and Wolfowitz. No they merely served the bastards. Jews can’t be the bastards. 

I understand the emotional necessity of this construction of history. At the risk of gross oversimplification (which has never stopped me before) we served an intermediary role, as Satter says. We were of vital necessity to the bastards, we could say with assurance that a society that failed to honor the place of the Jews would not prosper, even as we were discriminated against. And thus we could make an identification with the classes below us, the peasants etc, against the bastards. We could fight the bastards on the poor’s behalf. Even if we were not poor ourselves, even if we had a country house. And we could gain street cred by waging that fight– some indemnity against the poor’s resentment.

And yes, some of us made noble sacrifices in this endeavor. Beryl Satter’s father. Schwerner and Goodman the martyrs of Mississippi. Or the Jewish lawyers who are quoted in Ailsa Chang’s superb reports on racism inside the New York Police Department today on WNYC.

I’m just saying, I don’t think the model works any more. We must consider our enlarged place in the American establishment and jump up to it. We must listen to Helen Thomas and not just vilify this accomplished woman.

And of course this is the lesson of the Israel lobby, which I believe determines US policy in the Middle East, including– o Elijah!– the affliction of the Egyptian people for the last 30 years.

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