‘Death of a Salesman’ came out of an intermarriage

on 46 Comments
Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller

For days I’ve been working through a convulsive cultural experience: seeing Death of a Salesman the other night (in a second-row seat a friend gave me). The play is so dark it’s almost unwatchable. The character of Willy Loman doesn’t develop. You get it in the first scene, and the title tells you how things are gonna turn out. It may be a coronation for Philip Seymour Hoffman (or Dustin Hoffman, or Lee J. Cobb) to finally play Willy Loman, but it’s torture for the audience to watch a guy falling down eight flights of stairs.

There is only one character with arc in the play, Willy’s son Biff, who comes to majestic self-awareness over the 3 hours. In this production Biff is played by Andrew Garfield, who played Mark Zuckerberg’s Brazilian Jewish associate/friend in the Social Network. I’m told he’s now the It boy. Well, he should be: he gives an astonishing soulful performance. The reason I stood up at the end was for what Garfield calls on in all of us, aspiration, honesty, failure, rage, creativity.

Andrew Garfield
Andrew Garfield

The play had three levels of meaning for me. One was the father-son relationship. It’s devastating; the next time I see my father, I want to talk some things over. Another is the critique of capitalism. I loved it. It seems to me the whole play can be boiled down to two lines. One is Willy’s plea to his boss when he’s getting fired: “You can’t eat an orange and then throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit.” What could be a more meaningful description of hedge funds transforming our communities than that one line?

The second line is from Arthur Miller’s autobiography, Timebends, from opening night in 1949:

It seemed forever before someone remembered to applaud, and then there was no end to it. I was standing at the back and saw a distinguished-loking elderly man being led up the aisle; he was talking excitedly into the ear of what seemed to be his male secretary or assistant. This, I learned, was Bernard Gimbel, head of the department store chain, who that night gave an order that no one in his stores was to be fired for being overage.

Imagine a social drama today converting a hedge fund manager.

The third meaning for me was the Jewish layer. Walking out of the theater, I sensed that Death of a Salesman was wrested from Miller’s Jewish experience, and the next day I got his autobiography to learn more. Miller wrote that the play was based in some measure on a charismatic bullshitting Brooklyn salesman uncle of his named Manny Newman who had athletic sons who made their house “dank with sexuality.”

The Jewish meaning for me goes beyond Manny Newman. Willy’s two generational counterparts in the play read to me as archetypal Jews: his brother Ben the luftmensch entrepreneur and his businessman neighbor Charlie whose son ends up arguing before the Supreme Court. But let’s be clear. Ben and Charlie aren’t Jewish; no one is presented as Jewish in the play, and even if the models came out of Miller’s NY Jewish world, he wasn’t smuggling Jewish characters into American public consciousness. He wasn’t doing what Seinfeld did. Or The Social Network. Or Curb Your Enthusiasm.

No, Miller was using his Jewish materials to reach a broad society he wanted to redeem. He writes in his autobiography of his first wife, Mary Grace Slattery:

Mary had stopped considering herself a Catholic as a high school student in Ohio, just as I was struggling to identify myself with mankind rather than just one small tribal fraction of it. Both of us thought we were leaving behind parochial narrowness of mind, prejudices, racism, and the irrational, which were having their ultimate triumph, it seemed to us, in the fascist and Nazi movements that were everywhere growing in strength. Judaism for me and Catholicism for Mary were dead history, cultural mystifications that had been devised mainly to empower their priesthoods by setting people against one another. Socialism was reason…

Cultural mystifications: when Miller told his family he was marrying Slattery, his grandfather threw a clock at his mother, blaming her I guess.

There was a deep shadow then over intermarriages between Jews and gentiles, and still deeper if the gentile was Catholic.

The prejudice went both ways. Miller sensed that Mary’s Ohio family listened to anti-semitic radio. And that gave him a mission:

By whatever means, I had somehow arrived at the psychological role of mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well. No doubt as a defense against the immensity of the domestic and European fascistic threat, which in my depths I interpreted as the threat of my own extinction, I had the wish, if not yet the conviction, that art could express the universality of human beings, their common emotions and ideas.

Their common emotions and ideas! When I hear Miller’s summons to universality, I think of how much official Jewish life today valorizes tribal identity. Surely this has to do with the “continuity” crisis brought on by the 1990 survey showing that more than half of Jews were marrying out. Surely it has to do with the ’67 and ’73 wars that married American Jews to Israeli nationalism. But today it is not very common to hear a Jewish writer standing up for intermarriage. At the Tablet-sponsored debate about Israel last Wednesday, Daniel Gordis stated that tribalism is the core of Judaism and congratulated Peter Beinart for his concession in the Jerusalem Post, “I am a Zionist, a tribalist, a partisan of the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” And Beinart’s book about Zionism calls on Jews to separate their children in day schools so they won’t marry non-Jews. In doing so, Beinart notes that there are today 6000 non-Orthodox Jewish children in Jewish high schools.

As if that’s a big number. It’s not a big number. By and large, Jews are doing what so many other American tribes have done. They think of themselves as Americans, they are trying to help their country.

It’s not surprising that many people associated with the new production of Death of a Salesman are Jewish. Wikipedia says Andrew Garfield is Jewish. Director Mike Nichols likes to talk about his immigrant Jewish background. Some of the producers are Jewish, including Scott Rudin (himself the son of a traveling salesman; so– Biff ended up in Hollywood). 

All these Jews are cultural mediators, not just of Jewishness to America, but as Miller said, between Americans themselves. That is a great social responsibility; and for Miller that role was related to his intermarriage.

I must stress (Wondering Jew has hit me on this point): It’s fine and great when Jews marry other Jews. Marriage is hard enough without anyone else issuing guidelines.

But I am talking about the role Miller sought in American life: of artistically/spiritually mediating between Americans, seeking to resolve cultural problems. I don’t think you can aspire to such a role and meanwhile be telling your children to marry inside the tribe.

About Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of Mondoweiss.net.

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46 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    May 8, 2012, 10:45 am

    Great article, Phil.

    About those hedge-fund managers. I see no relief from the power of vast money (“big” is not big enough) in American society until the power of money is taken out of politics. It would be enough if all teh OCCUPY movements dealt only with identifying this issue, in all its ramifications, and educating the public about it.

    This issue is much too tentatively taken on at ABA Journal and much more by me here and here.

    • Citizen
      May 12, 2012, 11:20 am

      pabelmont, you are correct; if only OWS merely occupied K-St and Americans learned how core our current system of campaign finance is to all are other problems–it’s the structural base turning democracy into plutocracy.

      Lobbyists think of themselves as paid helpers devoted to more efficiently allowing their clients to present their case to congress. In their own eyes too, they would never bribe a government official as that would be illegal.

  2. Shmuel
    May 8, 2012, 11:10 am

    By whatever means, I had somehow arrived at the psychological role of mediator between the Jews and America, and among Americans themselves as well … I had the wish, if not yet the conviction, that art could express the universality of human beings, their common emotions and ideas.

    I think there is a difference between the “psychological role of mediator”, which necessarily demands varying degrees of belonging to both sides of the divide (more on one side if the “mediation” is one-sided, as in Miller’s case), and the idea of universality which can be found in all great works of art – as immersed as they may be in a single culture, because ultimately the human experience is one. Is Death of a Salesman itself any less universal because it is a product of American culture of a certain era? Would it have been less universal if the cultural milieu of its characters had been explicitly Jewish? Are the works of Ibsen or Chekhov (or Sophocles or Molière) any less universal for their specific cultural contexts?

    • marc b.
      May 8, 2012, 12:02 pm

      Are the works of Ibsen or Chekhov (or Sophocles or Molière) any less universal for their specific cultural contexts?

      what are you, european or something? and who are these people, anyway. we’re talking miller here, not some effeminate french guy who uses an accent over his e. europe is dead. the old world. kaput. morto. there is no universality unless we (americans) first approve of it.

      • Shmuel
        May 8, 2012, 12:05 pm

        Sorry. I stand corrected.

      • marc b.
        May 8, 2012, 12:11 pm

        no need to apologize. i just get a bit agitated when someone suggests that there might be something more to the human experience than ‘the avengers’ or ‘iron man’. really, what more could anyone want?

      • Shmuel
        May 8, 2012, 12:25 pm

        “The Avengers”? “Iron Man”?

      • marc b.
        May 8, 2012, 12:42 pm

        “The Avengers”? “Iron Man”?

        i feel a humanitarian intervention coming on. hang in there, shmuel. we’ll liberate you from your ignorance. no matter the cost.

      • eljay
        May 8, 2012, 12:57 pm

        Put him on an I-V drip of Tim Hortons coffee while you’re at it. That fancy Eye-talian expresso [sic] is nothing but poison. ;-)

      • Mooser
        May 8, 2012, 1:15 pm

        “The Avengers”? “Iron Man”?

        Very similiar to dybukks and golems, Shmuel, if I have the correct understanding.

      • marc b.
        May 9, 2012, 4:59 pm

        our dunkin’ donuts will steamroll your tim hortons, eljay. you know what happened the last time i ordered coffee at a tim hortons? they spoke to me in french. and this was in north america. it was all very disorienting. i don’t mind a bit of an accent, like at the international food court at epcot center, but i can’t order coffee in subtitles.

      • eljay
        May 9, 2012, 6:39 pm

        >> our dunkin’ donuts will steamroll your tim hortons, eljay.

        $20 (CDN, of course) says TH coffee is more lukewarm dishwater than DD coffee could ever hope to be! ;-)

        >> you know what happened the last time i ordered coffee at a tim hortons? they spoke to me in french.

        Mais, voyons, ce n’est pas juste, ça! :-(

      • Citizen
        May 12, 2012, 11:30 am

        What more? The Hunger Games?

      • Citizen
        May 12, 2012, 11:41 am

        Notes From Underground?

      • Daniel Rich
        May 8, 2012, 7:10 pm

        @ marcb,

        Kim Karda$$hian’$ dad is dead? Bummer, I really should get out more and stop reading. Universality lives in one’s heart and needs no one to defend or explain it. Basically it’s not that complex at all , unless you’re afraid of being a native American and another, way more developed creature enters the fray, than you’re in trouble.

  3. marc b.
    May 8, 2012, 12:34 pm

    Socialism was reason…

    a bit more on this left dangling declarative would be nice. was that the end of the sentence/paragraph?

  4. Mooser
    May 8, 2012, 1:06 pm

    “It’s fine and great when Jews marry other Jews.”

    I see. So your painstking perusal of marriage records has shown the Jew-Jew marriages less often result in divorce than Jew-Gentile marriages? Well, it’s good to have that established on a factual basis.
    And of those J-J marriages, we must ask, as a hopeful Navy man once asked my wife when she was working on his ships electricals “Sure, you’re married, but are you happy?”

    • marc b.
      May 8, 2012, 1:53 pm

      “Sure, you’re married, but are you happy?”

      i just heard maurice sendak in an interview describe his confusion over his neighbors in brooklyn growing up. he said he couldn’t tell the difference between jew and sicilian, and that he always just assumed that the italians were ‘happy’ jews.

      • Citizen
        May 12, 2012, 11:45 am

        Who can forget the images he created of his family’s adults clustered around him as a youngster in his crib? Where The Wild Things Are, if memory serves, was the name of that book.

        Compare it to Good-Night Moon.

    • lobewyper
      May 8, 2012, 2:01 pm

      Be careful Moose–you’re bordering on anti-Semitic here. :)

  5. DICKERSON3870
    May 8, 2012, 2:22 pm

    RE: “I am talking about the role Miller sought in American life: of artistically/spiritually mediating between Americans, seeking to resolve cultural problems.” ~ Weiss

    AN EXCELLENT BBC DOCUMENTARY: The Atheism Tapes (2004)
    As part of the making of the documentary series A Brief History of Disbelief, Jonathan Miller filmed conversations with some very distinguished minds.
    In this ground-breaking series, neurologist turned playwright and atheist Jonathan Miller interviewed six of today’s leading men of letters and science.
    New York Times best-selling author Richard Dawkins, Philosophers Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn, playwright Arthur Miller, theologian Denys Turner and physicist Steven Weinberg discuss their personal intellectual journeys and offer illuminating analyses of non-theism from a wide range of perspectives.
    • To watch the full documentary (for free) – link to topdocumentaryfilms.com
    • Netflix DVDs – link to movies.netflix.com

    The Atheism Tapes – Arthur Miller (VIDEO, 29:00) – link to youtube.com
    The Atheism Tapes – Steven Weinberg (VIDEO, 29:12) – link to youtube.com
    • OTHERS – link to youtube.com…10916.19444.0.22025.…0.0.

  6. Elliot
    May 8, 2012, 2:45 pm

    On the Jew marrying Jew piece, my main beef is that endogamy stands – or rather, stood – for all Judaism. Would Miller’s grandfather have flung his clock (a grandfather clock?) at his mother for any other Jewish reason? I doubt it.

    But I am talking about the role Miller sought in American life: of artistically/spiritually mediating between Americans, seeking to resolve cultural problems. I don’t think you can aspire to such a role and meanwhile be telling your children to marry inside the tribe.
    That’s a grand statement and I don’t think that is factually true, or that this is even prescriptively desirable. I agree that if intermarriage is the last and only thing you care deeply about as a Jew, then it’s a lost cause and a sad situation.

    • Daniel Rich
      May 8, 2012, 7:13 pm

      @ Elliot,

      side note:

      Q: flung his clock…

      R: I’m glad you didn’t end up with a typo here…

  7. Daniel Rich
    May 8, 2012, 7:04 pm

    Q; “You can’t eat an orange and then throw the peel away…

    R: But you can uproot olive trees and throw lives away…

  8. yourstruly
    May 8, 2012, 7:19 pm

    while potential mediators such as tv may be helpful in advancing universality what’s really effective and sustaining in this regard takes place when different peoples interact in their daily lives, particularly in education and work as well as wherever there are integrated communities. the non-self-conscious ease with which young people from varied backgrounds mix socially attests to this. here in california, for example, the latest public school demographics* reveal that 51.43% of students are hispanic or latino, 6.69% african american, 26.63% white (non-hispanic), 8.52% asian, 2.56% philipino, 1.81% 2 or more races and less than 1% native american. granted many schools remain de facto segregated but except, perhaps, for the home schooled, wouldn’t it be difficult to grow up in california without having had at least a modicum of familiarity with one’s peers from a diversity of backgrounds?

    *California Department of Education: Student Racial/Ethnic makeup for 2010-11

  9. RoHa
    May 8, 2012, 8:03 pm

    Arthur Miller was a Jew?

    • Citizen
      May 12, 2012, 11:51 am

      Yes. Maybe you were thinking of Henry Miller, RoHa?

      • RoHa
        May 12, 2012, 9:04 pm

        No. I never think of Henry Miller. I just never had any inkling that Arthur Miller was a Jew. I just thought of him as an American writer.

      • Annie Robbins
        May 12, 2012, 10:11 pm

        me too. he is, after all, an american writer. and how could any american never think of henry miller? oh, you’re not american!

      • RoHa
        May 13, 2012, 12:22 am

        “you’re not american!”

        Which is something of a relief, since it means I don’t have to go around thinking of Henry Miller all the time. Don’t you find it exhausting?

      • Citizen
        May 13, 2012, 5:41 am

        RoHa, you mean you think of him as an American writer like John Updike, or Phillip Roth? Is there any difference in your mind between a writer who universalizes his/her personal experiences and one who more emphasizes them in the particular?

      • RoHa
        May 13, 2012, 8:25 pm

        “RoHa, you mean you think of him as an American writer like John Updike, or Phillip Roth?”

        I mean that he is on my mental list of American writers, along with Gore Vidal and John Steinbeck and Joseph Wambaugh and Raymond Chandler and Ernest Hemmingway and Robert Frost and Mickey Spillane and Eugene O’Neil and Herman Melville and Orson Scott Card and Sara Paretsky and Ray Bradbury and Carl Sandburg and a pile of others.

        “Is there any difference in your mind between a writer who universalizes his/her personal experiences and one who more emphasizes them in the particular?”

        I don’t usually think about that. I think about who did the murder.

      • Citizen
        May 14, 2012, 2:51 pm

        Odd, you don’t mention, e.g., Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, or Philip Roth.

        Haven’t you read Roth’s “The Plot Against America”? (Gee, I bet you think Dirty Dancing merely reflected class conflict.) Try it: link to amazon.com
        See if you see anything like Ron Paul in Roth’s characterization of Charles Lindbergh–or have you a less biased view of either Paul or Lindbergh?

        (And, what does this mean: “I don’t usually think about that. I think about who did the murder.” So you think Who-Dunnits R first class literature? How is this relevant to my question? Crime? How About Crime and Punishment, not Mickey Spillane? )

        Post WW2, “The American literary landscape was suddenly and audaciously alive with Jewish characters of every sort. Writers shed their coyness and let their Jewishness speak in loud, even stentorian, tones.” link to sephardicoralhistory.org

      • RoHa
        May 14, 2012, 9:58 pm

        “Odd, you don’t mention, e.g., Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, or Philip Roth.”

        You mentioned Roth, so I didn’t need to. I don’t remember whether I have read anything by Malamud or Bellow.

        “Haven’t you read Roth’s “The Plot Against America”? ”
        No. Why should I?

        “(Gee, I bet you think Dirty Dancing merely reflected class conflict.)”
        No. I didn’t see the film, but from what I heard about it I thought it was a rehash of the old “young people enjoy R&R even though old fogies call it sinful” films.

        ” have you a less biased view of either Paul or Lindbergh?”
        Not much interest in either.

        “So you think Who-Dunnits R first class literature?”
        I think well-written who-dunnits are often more interesting than the tedious pretentious tripe that is often classed as “first class literature”.

        “How is this relevant to my question?”

        It shows that I don’t think about your question.

        ‘Post WW2, “The American literary landscape was suddenly and audaciously alive with Jewish characters of every sort. Writers shed their coyness and let their Jewishness speak in loud, even stentorian, tones.” ‘

        So what?

      • Citizen
        May 15, 2012, 1:41 am

        RE: “So what?”
        Nothing, RoHa, only that the subject article here above the line is Death Of A Salesman, and the various layers to it, such as the three Phil discusses, and this comment thread relates to those, including the aspects universal, American, and Jewish.

        So, you live in Australia?

      • RoHa
        May 15, 2012, 2:08 am

        But my comment was simply surprise to find out that Miller was Jewish.

        And yes, though I have spent a huge chunk of my adult life in Britain, with smaller chunks in Scandanavia, Japan, and the US. Plus a year in Saudi.

        And I’m still not thinking of Henry Miller, even as I type his name.

      • Citizen
        May 15, 2012, 2:50 am

        But your comment “So what?” was directed at my comment to you date-stamped May 14, 2012 at 9:58 pm.

  10. John Douglas
    May 8, 2012, 8:14 pm

    Thanks for great thoughts about Miller’s masterpiece. I recall seeing it while in grad school and the guy I was with said as we were leaving something like, “I think I have a clue about how the Greeks felt after seeing a tragedy.” His father, like mine, was a salesman, but that’s not in any way an advantage as the themes are so universal.
    I taught the play for years in Intro to Philosophy relating it to Marx’s early ideas about alienation: from labor, self, others and nature. It fit perfectly though I doubt Miller intended it.
    You are a great writer!

    John Mullen

  11. Les
    May 8, 2012, 8:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. From what you cite from his autobiography, Miller acknowledged that he was shaped by his Judaism but was not molded by it. The April 29 Cat Radio Cafe program WBAI featured a well done interview with Jerry Stiller who mentioned that being Jewish with a Catholic wife was appreciated by Ed Sullivan who featured Stiller and Meara on many of his tv shows, Sullivan being Catholic with a Jewish wife.

    link to archive.wbai.org

  12. PilgrimSoul
    May 9, 2012, 4:12 pm

    Phil’s writing is getting better, and the social commentary alone is becoming a real strength at this website. Death of a Salesman is a masterpiece. I thought the part where where Miller has the son catch the father cheating was a cheap shot, however, because the degradation of their relationship had much deeper roots. But Phil is spot-on right about the play being about the Greek tragedy that is at the heart of American capitalism. It isn’t just that people work themselves into the ground, but the fact that in America the marketplace is experienced by so many people as a religion–and it never delivers, because the marketplace isn’t set up to deliver the same emotional product as a religion. (Maybe most established religions can’t deliver what we want them to, either, but that’s a separate issue.)

    Willy Loman is a failure by his own standards, and his son Biff can’t help him, because Bill is also a failure–by Willy’s standards. I’m not sure what Miller meant in his autobiography about trying to explain Jewish thoughts and feelings to the rest of America, at least in this play, because Willy’s failure is universal. But I understand what Miller meant when he talked about being terrified of the growth of fascism in Europe, and wanting to explain that to the Americans. He saw what so many on the Left then saw–but what we don’t see today–which is that fascism isn’t just a set of pathological attitudes and behaviors, but also decisions made by a corporate upper class about the citizens of their country.

    Don’t look now, but that’s what we’re faced with again, in slightly different way. We have an absolutely brutal new corporate upper class that clearly wishes to reduce the American people to a kind of urbanized peasantry, robbing us of all the gains we’ve made in eighty years. The big question is whether enough Americans will get over their disappointment at capitalism’s failure as the True Church of America. They’ll have to, in order to fight back for some level of decency. Right now I think a lot of them are at the trauma stage. What follows is anybody’s guess.

    Linda’s cry of anguish at the end of the play sticks in the mind. Poor Willy is dead, but they made their last payment on the refrigerator. “We’re free! We’re free and clear!”

  13. Betsy
    May 11, 2012, 9:55 am

    As always, Philip’s reflections are important & brave. However, I’m getting worried about the uncritical use of the word “tribalism” in recent debates. As an anthropologist, I have to say that it’s both inaccurate & unfair to people who are actually “tribal”. Real tribes are people who do not use a state to organize themselves politically — e.g., a state in the sense of some sort of bureaucratic type, hierarchical structure. Real tribes use diverse forms of participatory governance in which kinship is usually a key organizing metaphor (along with many other metaphors). But, this is a very different thing from the kind of ethnonationalism & racism that is implied in the (appalling) statements by Daniel Gordis that Philip cites. It is a totally different thing when an ethnic group USES A STATE TO ENFORCE RACIST IDEOLOGIES. It is particularly shocking in the US which was explicitly founded on universalist principles. Let’s call this by its real name — racism (if it demeans other groups) or ethnonationalism (if its somewhat milder) or fascism (when it persecutes or exterminates minorities). The use of ‘tribal’ for this is an insult to real pre-State societies — & is a continuation of stereotypes of groups that actually have a lot to teach us re/ participatory governance (as David Graeber has been pointing out).

    • Citizen
      May 12, 2012, 12:01 pm

      OK. Betsy, how about State A is founded on universalists principles which state is used by an international tribe to enable a racist ideology in State B at the expense of the natives there?

      • Betsy
        May 12, 2012, 12:49 pm

        Dear Citizen — “international tribe” is a horrible & inaccurate phrase. If you mean people who have some ethnic background that is Jewish — then this phrase is a totally inaccurate & dangerous one. People who are ethnically Jewish are so diverse in political ideologies — including anti or non-Zionist strands. There is a group of people within the US who use its “univeralist principles…to enable a racist ideology in State B at the expense of the natives there” as you say — but it’s a mix of people (ethnically, religiously) tied in with dangerous military forces of the two states. I think we need a better word for what this is — even Israel Lobby is not sufficient. It’s gotten very dangerously mixed in with the military industrial complex — so it’s linked in truly strange ways to the Security State & weird international webs of military subcontracting. But, there are also these diffuse webs of cultural & emotional identification in the US (and now, sadly, Canada)– which are totally totally not real ‘tribal’ identification — but the usual, fairly abstract & highly sentimentalized & highly fictionalized attachments which Americans often have to the “homeland”. It’s an immigrant & modern phenomenon — very like Irish & Scottish trumped up imagery of the motherland (have you ever seen what goes on in “Highlander Festivals” in US? It’s interesting but usually a very contemporary fiction). It’s not at all like the identity formation that happens in real tribes where people share a common life, place & ecology — AND REAL WORLD COMMON PROBLEMS THAT THEY PERSONALLY MUST FACE. When international diasporas express this very American & immigrant attachment to an imagined & romanticized “homeland” thro meddling in the wars & politics of that homeland it’s almost always disastrous. E.g., Irish Americans expressing their emotional ethnic identity by supporting the IRA. The carnage in Punjab several decades ago was largely fueled by money coming from sentimental Sikh-English immigrants in Great Britain — who did not have to suffer the damage or fight the actual insurgencies. People of Jewish background who are supporting wars in the Middle East, are doing something that American immigrant groups do & is a very bad thing usually but in this case disastrous because of the geopolitical location of the ‘homeland’. There are also many Christians who have an emotional attachment to the geographic names from Bible reading — but would do well to take a more active role in dealing with the actual, contemporary sufferings of Christians & others in that geography now. The emotional attachment that many Americans have to the “holy land” (whether as a Jewish “homeland’ or Christian spiritual heartland) — should not be dignified with word “tribal” — it should be critiqued for what it is — part of a contemporary ethnic & emotional identity arising within the political culture of a nation of immigrants — in which there is a constant danger that identity will become a self-indulgent, highly sentimentalized, inaccurate, and abstract (in that it’s disconnected from real here & now people & geographies) — it’s like re-enactors who do what they do to satisfy certain contemporary emotional needs rather than to empathically engage with either the real past, or real contemporary others.

      • Citizen
        May 12, 2012, 5:33 pm

        Betsy, thanks; I don’t disagree with anything you say, as far as it goes–certainly there’s a big difference between the daily practical intra-activity within a small, remote African tribe of the sort National Geographic is famous for illustrating, and what this blog addresses, at least at the literal level; I will just say at this point, that, say, the Civil War or WW2 re-enactor mentality/emotional make-up– is not sitting in key influential seats in the US government, which currently wields the most power in this world. Or is it? At least we can be sure when the re-enactors you mean go home at the end of the day, there’s no dead, maimed, or starving human bodies left on the ground as testament to the real ultimate effect of any supremacist ideology or religion, often partnering with greed, career.

      • Betsy
        May 12, 2012, 7:45 pm

        yes, that’s what’s so tragic about this situation — it has terrible, real consequences in the world, unlike folks buying historically dubious clan tartans on an occasional trip to Scotland…But, my main point is that if we call this “tribal” loyalty — it makes it harder to critique & more exceptional & unique — whereas, if we call it typical American ethnic identity formation — it makes it part of a long process of immigrant groups rising up in the class structure & then having to deal with trying to develop more just & truly American ways of understanding that ethnicity & that upward mobility. E.g., when the Puritans arrived they came as people escaping victimage in the Old World, then became elites who transmuted that victimhood into a self-righteous superiority, but then had to deal at successive periods with the pressures in America to drop that self-righteous sense of superiority. WASPs in the Northeast, or Boston Brahmins (or “Christian Nation” segregationists down south) — had to experience criticism from others, get more self-critical, & deal with the wider American calls for equality & social justice. Now, newer elites whose identities are suffused with other ethnic imagery need to go thro a similar process of self-reflection, if we are to hold onto our universalist, anti-racist traditions in the US. It’s deeply sad & ironic that this is happening re/ certain strands of (Zionist) Jewish American ideology — when Jewish American political culture (in the past) gave the US such rich & powerful voices & ideas for social justice & against discrimination based on mere ethnicity.

  14. wondering jew
    May 13, 2012, 8:01 pm

    Phil- My attitudes about assimilation (and intermarriage) are primarily emotional.

    An image comes to mind: An emaciated Jew with his dying breath charges out of the gas chamber, stumbles and falls, but before dying, hands me a football stamped “Judaism” or “Jewishness”. And I don’t know what to do with this football, where to run with it, how to get it forward, (or even which way is forward).

    But your answer is to call the football tribalism, to label it as the opposite (and enemy?) of universalism and humanism, to drop the football- it is worse than a hot potato, it is poison. Your answer is nowhere near the answer that would fit my emotions, biography and personality.

    My more logical (or less hyper emotional) response is to argue the value of cultural diversity.

    In the second Star Trek series (New Generation about the Starship Enterprise with Picard) we have the embodiment of the deracinated future world in the Earthlings that are crew members. They are all boringly similar. If one wants variety in this future one must look to the representatives of other planets, for Earth has been thoroughly homogenized.

    Biological diversity is a proven value. I posit the value of cultural diversity. Let a thousand flowers bloom, with a thousand accents and a thousand cultural eccentricities. Who knows where the cultural cures for our spiritual woes might be conjured and/or mixed?

    Biological diversity advocates would never demand that a species justify itself in advance. Similarly advocates of cultural diversity would parallel that demurral. Some people have set themselves up as Commissars of the future, where cultures that seek to survive must submit their mission statements in order to receive permission. This attitude is offensive and if my analogy between biological and cultural diversity has any validity, their attitude is wrongheaded as well.

    (The issue of individual versus group deserves mention. Individuals should choose their ideologies based upon their inner compasses. The dynamic of group versus individuality is found in a multiplicity of choices that thinking humans encounter. Thus if the cultural diversity I am advocating implies an acceptance of coercive anti individual vectors of power, I must hedge my assertions. Beware of this aspect of cultural diversity. But let us not pretend that “our” modern situation of media inundation does not consist of another form of coercion and one must expect close knit societies to resist this form of coercion to assimilate. Coercion is all around the individual and it is not always easy to sense our inner compasses.)

    A secondary emotional element in my attitude towards assimilation has to do with the nostalgic streak in my personality. In a historical sense it is Warsaw of 1929 to 1939 that I yearn for, when Jews of varying ideologies came to the big city from their shtetls and mixed the Talmudic singsong logic of their rejected upbringing with the politics and art, individualism and utopian or group aspirations of the time. That era cannot be recreated, but I still yearn to go back to that time. Phil, you seek to go forward to a time when Jews will drown their particularism in the Nile of globalism, I wish to go back to a time when their/our particularism was still fresh and authentic and new to the world of ideas.)

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