Yesterday, Bret Stephens, a right-wing Zionist at the New York Times, wrote an editorial arguing that Jews are not only smarter than gentiles. They’re more creative. Predictably, the social justice left on Twitter is having a meltdown. Heidi N. Moore, for example, is so angry that she suggests that we not link Stephens’s article because that will only give the New York Times more traffic. Alas, one has to assume that Ms. Moore is a WASP instead of a Jew since her suggestion, that the mighty paper of record will suffer if random leftists on Twitter refuse to link their articles, is so pointless and so silly that it doesn’t speak well of her intelligence.
In any event, I read Stephens’s article, which I will certainly link here so as not to deny the New York Times my enormous reader base. Click. It’s a fairly short, fairly banal editorial about how Ashkenazi Jews not only have the highest IQ of any ethnic group in the United States — which I think is true but don’t quote me because I’m honestly not that interested in the debate over IQ — they also have a tradition of creativity and critical thinking which has allowed them to win a lot of Nobel Prizes and a produce a lot of famous intellectuals like Karl Marx. Stephens also asserts that the idea of a “tossed salad,” where every ethnic group retains its individual identity, is a better way of organizing society than that of a “melting pot.” It’s not really much more than a very familiar kind of American ethnic chauvinism, the ruling class version of the guy who puts a sign up next to his driveway that reads “Italian Parking Only” or a doormat that reads “On The 8th Day God Created The Irish .”
But the “Jews are smart” explanation obscures more than it illuminates. Aside from the perennial nature-or-nurture question of why so many Ashkenazi Jews have higher I.Q.s, there is the more difficult question of why that intelligence was so often matched by such bracing originality and high-minded purpose. One can apply a prodigious intellect in the service of prosaic things — formulating a war plan, for instance, or constructing a ship. One can also apply brilliance in the service of a mistake or a crime, like managing a planned economy or robbing a bank.
I suppose that while appropriate for bumper stickers and doormats, self-congratulating ethnic chauvinism has no place at the New York Times. But I personally think the idea of an intellectual and moral culture that spans generations is fascinating. Let’s apply Stephens’s argument to my own family. I grew up hearing my mother tell me that “in this family we don’t talk about politics or religion,” a fairly common opinion among lower-middle-class white families in New Jersey which I suspect has something to do with how the Italians gave up their anarchist traditions and the Germans their socialist traditions in exchange for upward mobility. “Real Americans keep quiet about politics so shut the fuck up.” Stephens, I suppose, is arguing that if my mother had been Jewish instead of Protestant she would have instead told me that “it’s OK to argue about religion and politics as long as you can back up your opinions with facts and reason.”
My mother came from a family that was deeply repressive and anti-intellectual. My maternal grandmother, for example, didn’t go to school beyond the 8th grade. Her father, my great-grandfather, told her that “girls didn’t need an education to be good wives and mothers.” To enforce his decision he refused to buy my grandmother glasses — she was badly nearsighted — until she was 16 and it was too late to start on a course of secondary education anyway. Then he told her that she should only wear the glasses when it was absolutely necessary until she found a husband because, you know, men didn’t go for the sexy librarian look.
My great grandfather also came from Denmark, a country renowned for its high standard of living, excellent health care system, and for its vast educational and economic opportunities for women. In the case of my own family, an examination of generational culture points to good reason to vote for Bernie Sanders, an intelligent Ashkenazi Jew who argues that the United States should become more likely Scandinavia. When my great grandfather emigrated to New Jersey from Denmark in the late 19th Century and promptly married a woman 15 years his junior — what an anti-feminist poster child that old pig really was — it was not yet a social democracy, but rather a repressive class society that, like so much of Scandinavia, sent a wave of poor immigrants to the United States in search of better opportunities. It was the Scandinavia of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants, not the Scandinavia of free healthcare and feminism for all. As the 20th Century progressed, Denmark moved to the left, and became progressively more secular and enlightened. Indeed, on my Polish/Lithuanian side I dodged a bullet when my great grandparents moved from somewhere around Gdansk to the coal fields of Northeastern Pennsylvania. On my Danish side, I missed out on the free healthcare.
In other words, the reason I come from a family of uneducated morons isn’t about ethnicity. It’s about the history of capitalism. Nevertheless, like ethnic and religious culture, the effects of a class society do indeed span generations. So I think Stephens has a point when he argues that intelligence and artistic creativity can be passed down from father and mother to son and daughter like the deed to a house. The idea is hardly scientific but does provide a critical perspective that allows me to understand why the things that interested me so much as a child have contributed to the reasons why I’m such a maladjusted adult. Whenever I remember my mother, who was a huge Hillary Clinton fan, wagging her finger at me and shutting me down whenever I tried to discuss politics, I can’t help but think that she had long nursed a resentment against men for my great grandfather’s cruel decision to deny my grandmother an education. Like a current day millennial feminist on social media who, in between rants about “bros,” vows to boycott books written by white men, my mother had decided that her son, as a future white man, should just shut the fuck up and listen.
(It didn’t work. I grew up into a sexist pig who talks too much about politics anyway.)
In addition to his banal ethnic pride and his speculation about IQ and generational intelligence, Bret Stephens also calls for the further repression of the Palestinian Solidarity and BDS movements.
At its best, the American university can still be a place of relentless intellectual challenge rather than ideological conformity and social groupthink. At its best, the United States can still be the country that respects, and sometimes rewards, all manner of heresies that outrage polite society and contradict established belief. At its best, the West can honor the principle of racial, religious and ethnic pluralism not as a grudging accommodation to strangers but as an affirmation of its own diverse identity. In that sense, what makes Jews special is that they aren’t. They are representational.
The West, however, is not at its best. It’s no surprise that Jew hatred has made a comeback, albeit under new guises. Anti-Zionism has taken the place of anti-Semitism as a political program directed against Jews. Globalists have taken the place of rootless cosmopolitans as the shadowy agents of economic iniquity. Jews have been murdered by white nationalists and black “Hebrews.” Hate crimes against Orthodox Jews have become an almost daily fact of life in New York City.
As a leftist who supports the Palestinian Solidarity Movement and the BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions), I suppose that I should resent Bret Stephens for calling me an anti-Semite. But honestly it doesn’t bother me. I’m 54 years old. I was a member of the Rutgers Palestine Solidarity Movement all the way back in the 1980s during the first Intifada. Getting called anti-Semitic by right-wing Zionists like Stephens is about as predictable as the coming smear campaign that will label Bernie Sanders as being a “self-hating Jew” for arguing that “Palestinians are human beings who deserve human rights.” I’m actually happy to see a right-wing Jewish American — of the decidedly non-Jewish, Anglo Saxon last name Stephens– lay his cards on the table and say “we Jews are better than you. Shut up and support Israel.”
For many of my fellow leftists, however, including leftist Jews who support the Palestinians over the Israelis, Bret Stephens’s ethnic chauvinism is a bit too hard to swallow. There is a belief on the American left that progressive Jews like Bernie Sanders not only have an obligation to speak up for the Palestinians, but that they have more of a right to debate American policy towards Israel than non-Jews. The pro-Palestinian left, both Jewish and non-Jewish, in the United States is deeply invested in liberal identity politics, in the idea that you cannot debate a political conflict that involves an ethnic group not your own. Only blacks can debate issue concerning blacks. Only Jews can debate issues concerning Jews. Only Hispanics can debate issues concerning Hispanics. Only Native Americans can debate issues concerning Native Americans. Generic white Americans of no particularly oppressed race, religion, or ethnicity should just “shut up and listen.” They have no right to be part of the discussion. But if you don’t have “white privilege” you can’t be asked to check your white privilege. By talking about Jews as a kind of Aryan super race, Stephens actually reduces their social power, at least their social capital on Twitter. Many leftists and liberals, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have confronted the issue. Many others are conflicted. They want the moral high ground of not being white and, thus, not the oppressor. They also want to send their kids to Harvard.
The brash Jewish chauvinism of Bret Stephens is a bit too honest for many leftists and liberals. He openly declares that right-wing, ruling-class Jewish Americans like himself are a class and should act like a class. That the New York Times can publish the 1619 Project, which argues that white Americans have racism in their DNA, and the right wing ethnic chauvinism of Bret Stephens strongly points to a ruling class agenda designed to get us to think about ourselves, not in terms of class, but in terms of ethnicity and religion. The paper of record has space on the same editorial page for both black nationalism and Jewish nationalism. I suppose it will eventually have space for Asian and Hispanic nationalism. It’s even and very recently made space for upper-class, white Protestant nationalism. But it will not allow us to discuss what we have in common. It will not frame any debate in terms of the rich vs. the poor, the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie. The choice is getting more and more clear. It’s either class war or race war. When it comes to class, politics, and ethnicity, the New York Times tends to speak in convoluted obscurity. They never quite come out and say “us rich people benefit when you poor people are talking about your race or religion instead of your common political and economic interests.” But Bret Stephens has quite unintentionally ratted them out.