Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Ideology as cultural marker

Man from the cradle is a racist. He prefers his own kind and turns up his nose, sometimes literally, at those from the next tribe. Or so, at least, argue evolutionary biologists. Human beings are hard-wired “to favor alliances . . . with others in direct proportion to degree of kinship and/or phenotypical similarity to these”; they display a “biologically based predisposition to have negative attitudes toward others on the basis of real or perceived differences that are typically, though not exclusively, of an ethnic nature.”[1] Thus ethnic groups develop cultural markers to distinguish those who belong from those who do not. In her now famous “wise Latina” speech, for example, Judge Sonia Sotomayor said:

For me, a very special part of my being Latina is the mucho platos de arroz, gandules y pernil—rice, beans and pork—that I have eaten at countless family holidays and special events. My Latina identity also includes, because of my particularly adventurous taste buds, morcilla (pig intestines), patitas de cerdo con garbanzo (pigs’ feet with beans), and la lengua y orejas de cuchifrito (pigs’ tongue and ears). I bet the Mexican-Americans in this room are thinking that Puerto Ricans have unusual food tastes.So much for “Latina identity.” On her own showing, their food tastes mark “Newyorkricans” as different from Mexican-Americans. Such markers can become so subtle that they create concentric circles of in-groups. Thus many Christians wear crosses, but Evangelical Protestants wear an “empty” cross to distinguish themselves from Catholics, whose crucifixes bear the figure of the broken Christ. Similarly, Orthodox Jews wear skullcaps to separate themselves from non-Jews (and the non-Orthodox), but Modern Orthodox wear kipot serugot (knitted skullcaps) while the haredi wear black velvet.

Not only the recognition but also the sharing of cultural markers can add to the appreciation of a novel, although sometimes I wonder if they are intended merely to create an alliance with some readers. In Thicker than Water, Vera Caspary’s 1932 novel about Sephardic Jews in Chicago, which I shall be reviewing at greater length in a few days, cultural references serve to differentiate one set of Jews from another, but since Caspary takes their differentiating force for granted and does not explain them further, they do double-duty as a signal of welcome to Jewish readers:Of course there was nothing outwardly Jewish in the strictly modern cuisine of Pine Point [a summer resort hotel for Jews]. They thought the cooking better than in other resorts, although Grandma Reisinger was often heard to complain that the kitchen was more more Amerikanisch each year. The cooking was not kosher. Most of these moderns looked on the discrimination against lard and shell fish as old-fashioned, superstitious and suspiciously Polish. Melanie’s mother would not come to the resort, for she still served meat and butter separately, but the younger Jesuruns had no patience with such outworn ideas. None of their friends set kosher tables.[2]The younger generation of Americanized Jews has liberated itself most thoroughly from kashrut; the older generation of Sephardic Jews continues to observe such prohibitions as that against mixing meat and dairy; and the Polish—or Ostjuden, that is, the Jews from Eastern Europe—keep kosher. In the next paragraph, a “homely old crone who wore a sheitel” leaves the hotel “without having touched a bite of food.” Although Caspary deftly shows that a sheitel is a wig, she does not explain its significance. That the crone is Polish must be constructed by the reader as a kind of logical inference: the Polish keep kosher, the crone keeps kosher, therefore the crone is Polish—that is, Orthodox. For Jewish readers, however, who immediately spot the significance of the sheitel, no inference is necessary.

In more recent American fiction, ideological sloganeering does the cultural work of forging an alliance between writer and reader. In Bridge of Sighs, his weakest novel since his first novel, Richard Russo directs his first-person narrator to explain that his motherdespises our president as a dishonest fool whose lies and stupidity have cost over two thousand American lives, but her deepest contempt is reserved for those who voted for him. . . . Even more personal is her claim that our president’s stupidity is apparent in his physical appearance, particularly his facial expressions. All you have to do is look at him, she claims. . . . [He] does, I admit, bear a striking resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman.[3]What else is the function of this passage than to appeal to readers who share the commonplace of George W. Bush’s stupidity and to announce to them, “I, the author, am on your side”? The formulaic cut-and-paste wording his lies and stupidity have cost over two thousand American lives and the narrator’s “admission” that President Bush resembles Alfred E. Neuman—as on the November 13, 2000, cover of The Nation—serve no other narrative purpose. The passage is irrelevant to the story.

This anxiety to win the approval of leftwing readers suggests to me that Russo, at least in The Bridge of Sighs, is a stranger to his own sensibility. A far more interesting passage occurs later in the novel when a Jewish mother confides that she does not believe in the sacramental conception of marriage. No surprise, really, since the Jewish conception is closer to that of a formal covenant. Russo appears not to know that. Instead, this is a slip—a simple failure of research. It reveals his cultural assumption—namely, that marriage is to be conceived in sacramental terms. When he is not trying to impress upon his readers that he shares their political opinions, Russo’s deepest instincts are Catholic.

Zoë Heller’s superb novel The Believers is all the more astonishing in this light. Since writing my review of it, I have learned that Heller is a Lefty. Yet she alludes to President Bush without winking broadly at her readers. Her allusion is poker-faced, neutral. For she is not interested in establishing her own ideological fides, but in showing in precise detail how ideology operates as a cultural marker separating her characters—especially Audrey, the self-described harridan and lifelong socialist—from those who are beneath their notice. The unavoidable conclusion is that ideology has little to do with ideas. Its real purpose is cultural: to sustain a feeling of kinship among those on the same side.

[1] Joseph Lopreato and Timothy Crippen, Crisis in Sociology: The Need for Darwin (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1999), p. 267. Quoted in Russell K. Nieli, “Selling Merit down the River,” National Association of Scholars (July 6, 2009): 46–47.

[2] Vera Caspary, Thicker than Water (New York: Liveright, 1932), pp. 122–23.

[3] Richard Russo, Bridge of Sighs (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 177.


ricpic said...

Never once have I heard a Jew refer to another Jew as Polish. Ashkenazim yes. Polish never. Polish means Polish Catholic peasant to a Jew, a person feared and despised.

D. G. Myers said...

Usually I would agree, but Caspary’s use of Yiddish is spot-on, suggesting that she knew the language well. For example: “Jennie hurried from his embrace to warn the shiksa in the kitchen that the soup must be on the table in ten minutes.”

What this usage also indicates is that Jewish language use has shifted in the last seven decades. Few Jews would use the word shiksa in the same way today. (The word almost universally implies a non-Jewish sexual temptress.)

What is more, the description of some Jews as Polish or as a “Polack” is central to the plot of Thicker than Water, which in large part is taken up with class divisions among American Jews based on European origins. I’ve never heard the words Polish or Polack used like this either. But I trust Caspary.

D. G. Myers said...

Did some nosing around. So far all I have found is that Israel Zangwill, the Anglo-Jewish novelist and playwright, uses the epithet repeatedly (“Polish crone,” “Polish physician,” “Polish quarter”) to refer to Jews in Ghetto Comedies (1907).

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting that you used this post as a means to again throw Judge Sotomayer under the shtetl wagon!

Did I miss your analysis of Governor Palin's resignation?

D. G. Myers said...

My analysis of Governor Palin’s resignation. Not sure who said this first. It frees the “first dude” to beat the everlasting s--t out of David Letterman, just as he deserves.

Anonymous said...

Does Governor Palin continue to represent what you have characterized as a shining star who should be President?

D. G. Myers said...

You must be thinking of someone else. Just searched the blog. Only four mentions of Palin, mostly in passing. Not a single use of the phrase “shining star”—although Tommy of Tauranga calls her that.

Besides, the post above was not about Palin, not even about Sotomayor (I quoted her to make a point about the broken-backed use of the term Latina). My argument is that some people, including many writers, use ideology to attain a feeling of blood-relatedness with those whose political “opinions” they share. Bringing up Palin is just another example of that. Palin’s very name has become a cultural marker, on both the Right and the Left.

In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, John Fund had the best report on Palin’s resignation that I have read. What makes it so good? Fund actually takes Palin at her word.

Imagine a politics in which more Americans did that!

Collin said...

It's hard to think of a worse offender than Richard Ford.

D. G. Myers said...

Agreed, Collin. See my review of the wildly overrated Independence Day.