Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Judaism & the Culture of Outburst

Jay Michaelson writes in the May 11 Forward, that I finally got around to unearthing in the clutter amidst remodeling, this article about the recent hypocritical contretemps and manufactured outrage around the remarks by Ann Coulter, Don Imus, and Michael Allen among others. Frankly, the Forverts in our mamaloshen needs to take more credit itself. It first covered the Allen "macaca" remark, tracing it back to a Tunisian Sephardic term of mild abuse, made the linguistic connection with Allen's own less than haimishe mama, and her own evident secrecy over What Did You Do In the (Second) Great War? Allen's own fumbling of the matter amidst "I ate a ham sandwich today" and "my mom boy does she love her pork chops" when confronted with the matter of his own matrilineal links forged with the lost tribes of Israel caused him to freefall in the polls, losing his safe GOP Virginia seat and thus the control of the Senate.

Well, my wife mentioned this article that I did leave out for her. Since I am the Green Party member (but as well as granola I do eat meat, recycle but am not a bicyclist, hate solicitations on doorstep or phone due to this political affiliation) and suspect the purported candidate who ran to show the need for a third party, blame me for Al Gore's loss (while he didn't carry even his own Volunteer State) and all else that's gone wrong in the era of Lil' Bush. Everyone complains about the lack of an alternative. Without voters on the rolls, however, the party cannot keep its presence on the state ballot. Miniscule and quixotic, yet the Greens represent a possibility. And, they even formed with Bertie Ahern's Fianna Fail a coalition in Ireland last week. Like Irish politics, the curse of the craven hangs low over our own elected reps. But, don't expect changes if we get millionaires in office like Hilary or Edwards or even Obama, as they too are all beholden to the same rubber chicken circuit that funds Nancy Pelosi mayor's daughter, and all the silver spoon Rodham- Clinton- Gore- Kennedy Dem dynastic successions themselves. Barring tactical nuclear strikes on the Capitol and fifty state legislatures, no ordinary folks will ever get elected president again. None can afford it.

Those who do pretend to feel our pain love cheap labor illegal or legal. I wonder if the reforms up for debate will only result in another 20 million crossing our borders once the 12 million are legalized. Remember, legality means minimum wages, and business and you and I and anyone needing inexpensive maids or desparate gardeners or cash-paid drywallers will simply drive up to Home Depot or the "hiring center" established for "undocumented" women. Underground economy, that of swap meets and taco trucks and ATMs for payroll, has been estimated at 15-20% of our city's economy. So, who pays for the services these people demand? Teaching and caring for them and their children? America, caught between financial greed and humanitarian morality. Daddy Warbucks loves this situation, can threaten the rest of us with outsourcing or let us off as hired hands by the hour, sans benefits, if we remaining gainfully and legally employed natives raise a fuss. Dems love the new voters, and GOP gets the profiteers.

Yes, Michaelson here tells the truth. This populist, anti-capitalist, pro-American, middle-class position gets nothing but contempt from those who call racist what many ordinary people here want. Yesterday, my speech students decided on a class debate on immigration policy for their final exam. Both illegal and legal immigrants spoke, as well as many whose families fled Pol Pot, or left Malaysia, El Salvador, or India in search of that dream we all share. Mexico, using la frontera as its escape valve, tidily gains $60 billion, at least according to one immigrant who spoke up, sent back that we Americans do not see, either in taxes or investment or profits going into the communities were these immigrants live. One part of me resents this loss to our coffers, the other part hopes this will entice people to stay at home to better themselves rather than make the trek that 10% of all Mexicans already have to El Norte.

Meanwhile, our hospitals totter, our schools groan, and our freeways clog. Many of my students related what they thought was unfair, that they had to learn English right away to survive while millions stay in their enclaves and never fit in. I told them about the matricula consular and the legal fiction that allows illegal residents here to acquire all the accoutrements of our lifestyle. A Belizean woman described how the government gives back tax money paid by illegal immigrants for their children, by allowing numbers to replace non-existent Social Security numbers. Another student spoke of his parents' motel in Bakersfield. Yes, his surname was Patel. They never could take vacations, the workers they hired stole the petty cash, and the parents looked forward to going back to India after three decades here. But, with the wealth they amassed, they would live like rajahs in India while being able to live in the U.S. on and off in retirement, so as to be close to the Americanized kids. The student drives a $90k Mercedes. A Mexican student told that while his father wanted to go back home, he would not. He had to be near his family here. This anchors so many homesick immigrant matriarchs and patriarchs here.

Another student from Cambodia who served in the U.S. military told of the sanctuary movement that gave a cousin his first chance after he got here illegally. One student from Santa Rosa told of his aunt's job in the courthouse processing summonses for those arrested without papers to show up again in court. None ever bother to return; they skip bail to vanish. I doubt if the immigration bill now under debate will improve this chaos.

Tax credits for the rich, subsidies for the poor, and those of us in between get the squeeze. Get your war on. Housing: yesterday I arrived home (after standing up on all three train lines due to overcrowding) to see on our once-empty hillside two new lots for sale. Looming over our vista ten feet away and a hundred yards away, the skies will end and shadows will glow.

Glass & stucco, garishly designed nightmares, supersized sloth to house the new teeming masses. Demographic growth: equivalent of two Chicagos moving or already here by 2025 or so. 100,000 new residents a year in L.A. County alone. In my class of three dozen that I teach at night, none of us had even one grandparent born in Southern California. I know, I live here, I benefit from the labor savings, I drive (but except when stuck with that night class, I do take the bus and train to commute!), and I plug my snout up the cornucopia that we all pig out on, Zayde Allen's trayf or kosher-style, in America. Guilty as charged, j'me accuse, mon frere.

But lately, getting back to my more rarified, idealistic, other blog post today, I do find myself craving less the new CD, the book I have to acquire, the latest this or that. Perhaps this is age. Perhaps wisdom. Perhaps, as the fate of that May 11 Forward shows, too much junk.

I'll let Michaelson shut up my rant with these snippets:

[Speaking of Imus, Michael Richards, & Allen but not Coulter] these offenders were found guilty in the court of public opinion, no matter the profuseness of their apologies — not because they offended American public opinion, but because they expressed it: These celebrities expressed anger, fear and prejudice that many people feel, and feel guilty about feeling, and in language that we, like frightened schoolchildren terrified of punishment, have been sternly warned not to use. Indeed, we have a very Jewish system of condemning certain acts, and a very Christian one of implying evil intents. The result? A cultural moment of intense anger roiling under ubiquitous false speech. And when someone’s ire comes bursting to the surface so publicly, we can’t help but stop and stare.

Consider first the rage, which transcends political ideology. For those on the Left, the reasons include a lost and pointless war, unstoppable globalization, an inept president, climate change, the homogenization of American culture and a shocking erosion of civil liberties. For those on the Right, they include a loss of American prestige, an implacable and barbaric enemy, the “pornographication” of American society, the loss of traditional values and, not least, the loss of European-American hegemony: Classical music and classic rock both giving way to the barbaric beats of rap. Indeed, fully a quarter of the nation thinks that we are trapped in a doomsday war of civilizations, and that “American culture” is being destroyed by unchecked immigration and loss of “values.”

Yet on both the Right and the Left, the rage that is at the heart of these concerns goes unaddressed, even unspoken. Not since Barry Goldwater (or perhaps Pat Buchanan) has a mainstream conservative politician “told it like it is” and given voice to anti-multiculturalist rage — unlike in Europe, where French, Dutch and German elites do so all the time. And on the Left, the last politician to seriously criticize American imperialism, hyper-capitalism and globalization was Ralph Nader, and we all know how that turned out. With mainstream public figures having calibrated their message for maximum inoffensiveness, to actually give voice to any of these deep concerns relegates one to the blogosphere.

. . .

Juxtaposed with this infuriating cocktail of rage and repression is a pervasive culture of B.S., surrounding us with meaningless nonspeech and pointless legalism. By now we’re all used to endless phone trees (“To ensure customer service, this call may be recorded”); operators in Bangalore pretending to be from Topeka; divesting ourselves of shoes and fluids at the airport; flight attendants reciting legal formulae from rote and ubiquitous “customer service” initiatives.

Enter the outburst. Again, the press tends to treat these explosions as if they’re offenses against the American way, but really they’re expressions of it. These bigoted outbursts are angry, honest and against the rules — rules with which many, many people do not agree. No wonder we can’t help but watch; we get both the frisson of a taboo being transgressed and the sense that there but for the grace of God go I.

Americans have never much liked double-talk, at least in theory; “fancy speech” is for the Europeans, and “Give ’em hell, Harry” Truman is the kind of hero only this country could produce. But our current culture offends an even deeper norm: that people are supposed to be judged not by how best they conform to a set of written rules, but by the truth of their souls. In our idealized town squares, courtrooms and homes, we’re meant to be judged on who we really are, not just on what we say or do. After all, aren’t we supposed to evaluate our fellow citizens by “the content of their character”?

If this sounds religious, it’s because it is. Our current agon around political correctness is a direct repetition of one of the fundamental struggles of Judaism and Christianity: the great debate between Paul and the talmudic rabbis. In Jewish law, the emphasis is on acts, not intentions; deed, not creed; external duties, not internal predilections — circumcise the flesh; avoid forbidden foods; do not do work on the Sabbath. Early Christianity, in contrast, places the emphasis on the internal rather than the external — circumcise the heart, not the flesh (“Real circumcision,” said Paul in Romans 2:29, “is a matter of the heart — it is spiritual and not literal”); act with love, not with ritual purity; have faith. The Talmud spelled out the details of tort law, but Jesus asked us to love our enemies. Jewish law governs the body (what you say, what you do), Christian faith the soul (what you feel, what you believe). For biblical and talmudic Judaism, there is no “who we really are” apart from what we actually do, but Jesus called the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside are beautiful, but inside… full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.” (Matthew 23:27)

Today we have cooked up a toxic brew of the Jewish and the Protestant. On the one hand, our taboos are very “Jewish.” They govern the external (what one says), not the internal (what one feels); in the hyper-PC world, you can be as racist or communist as you like, as long as you keep your mouth shut. (Indeed, the whole post-outburst conversation is like some political parody of “Seinfeld,” parsing the meanings of “nappy-headed” and “macaca,” condemning the utterers of these talismanic phrases.) On the other hand, our response to these Old Testament transgressions is a New Testament assumption that racist speech means a racist heart. At the risk of oversimplification, the Jewish approach is “Thou shalt not say this word.” The Christian approach is “Thou shalt not have this thought.” And our current approach is “If you say this word, you probably have this thought, and so we condemn you.” Thus by necessity we’ve all become whitewashed tombs, ever on the lookout for the slightest trace of filth.

. . .

Without a respectable forum for conservative concerns about race, sexuality and ethnicity, or liberal ones about economic and social justice, we’re reduced to a nation of pathetic and puritanical detectives, looking for hints of animus in cryptic utterances, and ever more closely holding the reins of what we are and are not allowed to say. Yes, our Pharisaic system of speech-patrol has made hate speech unacceptable in polite circles. But is enforced politeness really the way to truth — or reconciliation?

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