Friday, September 11, 2009

Mystery Solved

Neoconservative godfather Norman Podhoretz has just published a book about the question that has been bothering him for the last thirty years, "Why Are Jews Liberals?" Podhoretz's magazine, Commentary, has published a symposium honoring the book, in which six well-known American Jews discuss why everyone else doesn't get it. This has caused a blizzard in the blogosphere, which The New York Times summarizes here.

Of particular interest is the response of Robert Stacy McCain, a former editor at the Washington Times turned full-time right-wing pundit. On his blog (called "The Other McCain," lest you think that John is a true conservative) he praises Michael Medved's observation that Jews' distrust of right-wing evangelicals is a big factor, and denounces "Norman Lear and others" for their "demonization of the 'Religious Right'" that has so misled Jews. But he doesn't stop there. He continues:

"This effect is compounded by a factor which, whether or not Podhoretz discusses it in his book, I didn't notice mentioned by the symposiasts, namely the town-and-country divide in American politics. Although the trend to suburbanization has somewhat ameliorated this generalization, most American Jews are fundamentally urban in their orientation, while most American conservatives are fundamentally rural.

"Think of Reagan, riding horses and clearning brush at his ranch -- it is an image that appeals to the "country" side of the town-and-country divide, embodying as it does the antique ideal of the American frontier homesteader.

"This 'rugged individual' ideal, the self-sufficient property owner zealously guarding his freedom, is intrinsic to what American conservatism is all about, and it is an ideal quite alien to the urban lifestyle. The city-dweller is inherently dependent on public services. He doesn't draw his water from a well, doesn't go out with a chain-saw to supply firewood for the winter, doesn't augment the grocery budget by hunting deer or growing his vegetables....

"If Messrs. Podhorhetz, et al., wish to promote conservatism among American Jews, let them find some way to encourage Jewish families to move to small towns in the Heartland, where their kids can grow up hunting, fishing and hot-rodding the backroads. A guy with a gun rack in the back window of his four-wheel drive truck may occasionally vote Democrat, but he's extremely unlikely to be an out-and-out liberal."

Well. Mystery solved. How many Jews can hear someone talk about how Jews live in cities, so they're not like us in the Heartland, without feeling queasy? Does anyone expect them to join a political grouping that says, if only you lived like us, you would think like us, but our thinking is alien to your lifestyle? If there were no religious Right, all we would need to explain Jews' liberalism is people like Robert Stacy McCain.

I'm not saying McCain's an anti-Semite; in fact, I doubt he is. And he's certainly correct, and insightful, about the urban-rural divide (which is why the Republican party is withering away). But the attitude of, "We're the real America, and you aren't as authentic as we are" is not one that most American Jews will accept.

Forget principle. Jews have always identified their self-interest with tolerance and equality, not with nativism. The former continues to be the hallmark of the left, the latter of the right. Incidentally, young people in general are notably more tolerant than older people (look at survey data on attitudes toward gays, for example), and were far more likely to vote Democratic in the last election.

The real mystery is why the likes of Podhoretz and Medved continue to be untroubled by these attitudes on the right. Perhaps they accept them. Perhaps it's time to put a new twist on that hoary old neoconservative epithet, the self-hating Jew.

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