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Jews, Including Noah Feldman, Need to Emulate the WASPs’ Discourse of Privilege

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Last week two Harvard Law School professors had a fascinating debate over the Iraq war and American power.

One professor was Duncan Kennedy, a pioneer in critical legal studies–i.e., a leftwinger. The other was a prof barely half his age, Noah Feldman, a rising star at Harvard who is famous for two things: serving the U.S. coalition in Iraq back in 2003 by helping to draft a constitution for the Iraqis and writing a piece for the New York Times in which he said that his marriage to a Christian Asian woman had caused him to be airbrushed out of his Orthodox high school’s photographs. The piece was explosive, though I wasn’t that impressed: its arena of introspection seemed to me too narrow. Intermarriage violates Jewish law; we all know that already. So does driving a car on Saturday.  And everyone’s doing it. What about Jewish law/custom that is much more important/controversial: colonization of "Judea and Samaria" for religious purposes.

The debate at Harvard is interesting to me chiefly for Jewish socio-cultural reasons, secondly for political reasons. But let me offer some of reporter Chris Szabla’s superb account:

[M]ilitary and economic factors [such as the rise of China], Kennedy said, would result in the
United States losing control of its traditional spheres of influence…. [H]e wondered whether this wholesale
abandonment of "empire" was not a good thing. U.S. power, he pointed
out, had resulted in the propping up of a number of unsavory regimes
and the commitment of a number of atrocities, dislodging the notion
that there was a moral necessity to continuous American power

…Feldman took
the opportunity to paint Kennedy into an ideological corner.

noted that his adversary’s musings on the United States’ possible
agrarian future were akin to the political position taken up by
anti-imperialist agrarian populists in the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. Comparing Kennedy to William Jennings Bryan, he said that
"small-r republicanism" might be as attractive today as it had been to
Jefferson, or, for that matter, republican Rome. Still, he noted, it
didn’t "enable [a state] to add value" economically.

Feldman then moved into the arena of global power politics,
asking "who will win" if the United States were to abandon its role as
a guarantor of global order. On this, he took a Hobbesian position –
chaos was likely to ensue. He suggested that Kennedy’s hopes for
withdrawal were akin to a "fantasy of redemption" driven by the
selective application of a historical model – the end of communism, but
only as it had happened in Poland, and not, say, Yugoslavia.

Iraq, Feldman observed, was an example of what happened when disorder was actively promoted. [Kennedy] hit back by noting that attempts to prop up
world order had sometimes resulted in further destabilization. The
clash of perspectives continued in a different direction with the
example of German reunification: Feldman argued that it had only been
possible with the United States maintaining a presence, guaranteeing
other states did not become fearful of, and gang up on, Germany. Kennedy
said that it had been possible not as a result of U.S. power in that
given moment, but as a consequence of many years of political and
ideological development.

Ultimately, the two professors appeared to disagree most strongly about
what American power actually meant for the world. Feldman retained a
belief that the exercise of U.S. power could promote moral values,
whereas Kennedy saw less to admire. "I want to overcome my WASP ruling
class identification with the U.S. as a proxy" for personal power, he
said, as the debate came to a head. In response, Feldman deadpanned, "I
don’t have the luxury of thinking of my country that way". He said that
he "did not see the right to rule as something [conferred] to me by
birth" but was glad to be a member of a participatory state.

On the politics here, I am in Kennedy’s corner (and not far off is Jeremiah Wright!). I believe America is the greatest country on earth, but I don’t see great moral virtue in American foreign interventions. Some good, some bad. Feldman’s beliefs seem to me somewhat starry-eyed and reminiscent of neocon theory, say Charles Krauthammer’s unipolar Wilsonian idealist interventionism. Feldman attacks Kennedy as a populist isolationist. But always we must ask, Who will fight these beautiful wars for world order? Your children or someone else’s? That is the soul of populist isolationism, and it’s not always a bad guide for policymakers. Cf, Iraq, which Feldman (who speaks Arabic, says Wikipedia) seems to regard as a potentially-noble intervention. In my view, and I imagine Kennedy’s, it has been arrogance from start to finish.

But let me get to the sociological ground. Kennedy makes me love him when he talks about his ruling class background. This is typical of WASPs I know. Yes a lot of them are ruling class tools, maybe most of them, but a bunch of them are running environmental organizations and new-age spiritual retreats, i.e., they have had a rich discourse of interrogating their privilege since Vietnam showed their fathers to be war criminals. And it was in the Vietnam years that E. Digby Baltzell published the classic, The Protestant Establishment, which said that WASPs had become a calcified "caste" and they must let the Jews in.

They did. Again I must say this is the Largest Sociological Fact of my life and my Jewish generation’s  lives: how we came into the Establishment in the last 30 years. And I am irritated by Feldman’s response to Kennedy, when he says, "I don’t have the luxury of thinking of my country that way." This strikes me as self-deceptive and self-flattering. A great deal about Feldman’s life must be thought a luxury: the Orthodox Jewish background that gave him, at Maimonides High School, the bookish legal training that has served him so well; his inclusion in one elite organization after another as a sterling member of the meritocracy. Lately rumor has it he has bought a fancy house near Harvard. Good for him.

I wonder if Feldman’s triumphalist feeling about American power doesn’t come out of the triumphal rise of the meritocracy. No I don’t have enough information to make such a personal judgment of Feldman; but I’ve seen that complacence all around me in the new establishment, and so I wonder. Certainly there is a lack of self-awareness in that comment about luxury. Jews make much more than WASPs, per the latest Pew Research. We serve in the military at rates lower than other religious groups, even Buddhists, as I have reported (and no, I’ve never served). We’ve stuck in our thumb and pulled out a plum and thought, what a good boy am I!  Noblesse oblige; I want Jews to have a discourse of privilege: an understanding of ourselves as privileged in this society and along with that, some self-interrogation about how to make our society a fairer one.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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