Friday, June 27, 2008

The weirdness of the American idea?

How do American Jews form their identity? David Samuels believes there is a tension in the process. He thinks that most American Jews still have a traditional view of identity: that it is tied to an historic, ongoing ethnic tradition. The mainstream American identity, though, he takes to be modernist: it is based on relinquishing the past in order to be a self-made, future oriented individualist.

Samuels writes that there is a creative tension in trying to reconcile the two aspects of American Jewish identity; in maintaining the traditional and ethnic, whilst identifying with a mainstream identity in which heritage has been dissolved.

Samuels' argument has its strengths and weaknesses. The strong point is that Samuels has captured the point of transition between a traditional understanding of identity and the liberal modernist one.

In the past, communal identity was based largely on ethnicity: on membership of a shared ethnic tradition, which might involve a common ancestry, religion, language, culture, history and so on.

This kind of identity, though, was undermined by liberal modernism. In part, this is because liberalism has taken individual autonomy to be the highest good. Ethnicity is not something that is self-determined: it is inherited and not chosen by us as individuals. It therefore stands in conflict with autonomy theory.

As a result, liberal moderns have either treated ethnicity as a trap or prison from which the individual must be liberated, or else they have thought of ethnic identity as something that individuals might construct for themselves as part of a personal narrative (which ignores or denies the real, historic, objective basis of ethnicity).

Samuels doesn't connect the modern view of identity to liberalism. He sees it as a peculiarly Christian thing. This has one positive outcome: it means that he, as a Jew, feels sufficiently distant from the "Christian" mainstream identity to express his doubts about it. But there's a negative consequence too of seeing modernism as a peculiarly Christian affair: Samuels doesn't seem to be aware of just how deeply he himself as a Jew is influenced by liberal modernist assumptions about autonomy and identity.

Here is Samuels on the difficulty of combining a traditional and modern understanding of identity:

If Americans are self-made people who embrace an imagined future in order to escape the burdens of the past, American Jews seek to have their cake and eat it too by embracing the future-oriented American idea without relinquishing their historically bound identity as Jews. While I don't think that the American and the Jewish identity principles are always necessarily opposed, I do think that keeping both ideas in one's head at one time can be the source of a tremendous amount of creative tension.

It is also inherently deceptive, in the sense that one is quite often signaling to others that one has agreed to dissolve one's particular heritage and historically bound point of view into a common Christian-inflected, highly individualistic and alienating, yet incredibly productive future-oriented social whole that most American Jews view with a high degree of distance and skepticism. The only real parallel for the ungracious refusal of large numbers of American Jews to buy into the full weirdness and wonder and scariness of the American idea is the experience and behavior of blacks ...

Note the terms in which Samuels describes the mainstream identity: the aim is to be "self-made" (i.e. self-created or self-determined), which then makes the past not a positive source of identity but a "burden" (an impediment, a restriction). This is identity seen in terms of liberal autonomy theory.

And how does Samuels, raised within a more traditional ethnic identity, portray the mainstream, liberal identity? He is not altogether complimentary: although he describes the mainstream identity as being incredibly productive, he also thinks that it is weird, scary, alienating and individualistic. He believes that most American Jews view it with "a high degree of distance and scepticism".

Samuels has written a story based on the life of James Hogue, a con man who lied his way into Princeton. Samuels draws on liberal autonomy theory when linking Hogue to the mainstream American identity:

... I see James Hogue as a representative American who embodied the abstract logic of self-invention and being born-again, and took those ideas to an uncomfortable extreme. One purpose of my text is to create sympathy for Hogue's victims without denying Hogue his actual achievements or reducing his personal autonomy and the strangeness of his choices to a bunch of symptoms for which Prozac or some newfangled anti-psychotic pill might be usefully described.

Similarly Barack Obama is described this way:

I see him as a representative American - a self-made man, part con artist, part performer, living in an imaginary future that will make him and his audience whole.

Samuels is enough of a liberal modernist to reject the ethnic nationalism on which Israel is based. In correspondence with an Israeli Jew he writes:

The other reason this conversation scares you is that you are an Israeli, meaning that you are a product of a nineteenth century ideology that believes that blood, soil and language must be unified in order to form a healthy, unified self ... Israelis can't help but believe ... that the mark of being a healthy Jew is to be a member of a free nation living in its own land.

Here is Samuels arguing that American Jews don't follow the modernist line consistently - again because they don't follow the principle of autonomy:

Why do they (Jews) insist on converting their goyish wives or children's children to their religion instead of simply letting them choose to be whoever they want to be?

And some more on the difference between the liberal American mainstream identity and the more conservative Jewish one:

Americans believe, very deeply, in the value and necessity of abolishing the past and living in the future. Americans believe that each individual has the capacity for finding God's grace within him or herself, and can only find it by being born again --- independent of family history and ties. While you don't have to be a Christian to accept historically peculiar American ideas about the individual, the past and the future, it is hard to ignore the fact that these ideas are Christian in their history and, I would argue, in their essence.

The stories Jews tell ourselves are different. We tell ourselves stories about our unbroken connection to a common set of tribal ancestors to whom all Jews are connected by blood. We tell ourselves about the unbroken chain of interpretation that connects today's Torah sages to the medieval commentators to the sages of the Gemarra and Mishna to the revelation given to Moses on Har Sinai. We tell ourselves stories about our survival as a people through thousands of years of exile and persecution in which we still claim to be able to see the hand of God.


The ways that Jews see the individual and his or her place in the world contradicts core American beliefs about abolishing the past, living in the future, and making yourself up from scratch. Sometimes we acknowledge this contradiction to ourselves, and sometimes we pretend that we think and see the world the same way as everyone else.

But how does Samuels reconcile all this? He is clearly deeply influenced by liberal autonomy theory. Does he then reject his own Jewish ethnic identity as a "burden" to be cast aside?

He doesn't. He finds a way to preserve it within the terms of autonomy theory:

I am Jewish, not because I think things are rosy, but because I chose to be Jewish, because I feel lucky to carry the historical weight of 3500 years of contradiction and argument and exile, and because there is something irreducibly slippery and human and contemporary about having to be two or more things at the same time.

So his Jewish identity is legitimate because he chose it, and because it is complex, multiple and fluid - and therefore something difficult and challenging for the individual to negotiate (which preserves the idea that it's something the individual is constructing for himself, or at least participating in the construction of).

This might seem like a useful "out" - a way to stay Jewish whilst still holding to liberal orthodoxy. The problem is, though, that it doesn't provide a strong basis in the long run for a Jewish identity. Is it just a matter of an arbitrary individual choice? And why not find a complex identity to negotiate somewhere else? I just can't see generations of Jewish kids opting in for the reasons outlined by Samuels.

Liberal autonomy theory played a major role in undermining the mainstream heritage; it is likely to do the same if adopted elsewhere, no matter how cleverly Samuels attempts to fit his own ethnic identity within it.


  1. Being one of those greatly disparaged White Anglo-Saxons who ancestors landed by ship in American in 1600's I find destruction of our culture by the so-called “Liberals” most sad, terrible, and sickening. Our cultural has been stolen and the so-called education system teaches children the “America” is nothing but a state, not related to ancestry or culture. Nations are built from blood and soil not paper and government, from 1610 till the time of the second wold war it was understood the America was an Anglo-Saxon Nation, once this idea died, the death of America was inevitable.

  2. A fascinating observation here: "So his Jewish identity is legitimate because he chose it, and because it is complex, multiple and fluid - and therefore something difficult and challenging for the individual to negotiate (which preserves the idea that it's something the individual is constructing for himself, or at least participating in the construction of)."

    The theme of this post suggests to me that society-wide autonomy in whatever guise (by the stealth of an elite class or the inadvertent disintegration of historic traditions) is an interim default mode of sorts. A temporary sense of autonomy leaves us in a potentially better position to receive the next round of traditions, assuming that the autonomy routine gets stale. After all, the genealogical memory of religious and ethnic heritage is not so far behind. It is in living memory still and I suspect the "traditions" of post-modernism would be as butter before a hot knife.

    The problem is that few people know what to do with this government-realized (and enforced) "independence" in the meantime and a multitude of powerful vested interests will ensure that the future is neither straightforward nor reassuring for the common man.