The Jewish Question Redux

I had an odd experience today.

I had previously written a post about the standard Holocaust story. My post said this:

German Naziism was obviously a blight upon the world. But that flat statement is not very useful. It makes the Nazi party a mere historical artifact. Nazi Germany becomes a sort of boogeyman, trivialized in Hitler parody videos . . . .

[T]here are limits to the standard belief, in which the Jews were victimized through no fault of their own. That belief is not realistic. It does not help the Jews to learn from their mistakes — and in the pre-Nazi years, Germany’s Jews did make mistakes. . . .

To learn from the Holocaust, and to prevent its recurrence, we must get past the superficial tale popularized in so many Hollywood movies. This post demonstrates an ironic possibility: that, simply by seeking out the truth, Gentiles like me may be doing more to protect the future of the Jewish people than many self-appointed defenders of Judaism are doing.

Today, I was reminded of one of those mistakes in particular. Another excerpt from that previous post:

Within Germany, Gordon (1984, pp. 14, 53) lists a variety of highly paid and influential careers in which Jews were greatly overrepresented. Media (e.g., film; radio broadcasting; publishing) was one area of significant Jewish overrepresentation. That was problematic because, according to Gordon, many of the prominent Jewish journalists made a habit of criticizing traditional German values. What better way to amplify Gentile hostility than to obtain broadcasting capability, and to use that capability to offend large numbers of people? . . .

German traditionalists saw themselves as engaging in a “cultural war” against the kind of immorality (as they saw it) that was being promoted by those Jewish media executives . . . .

In such circumstances, offended people will promote alternatives. One alternative that some Germans found appealing came from the Nazis — who, according to USHMM, valued family, nation, self-sacrifice, discipline, and harmony with nature. In response to Jewish liberalism and intellectualism, they appealed to traditional middle-class respectability . . . .

What reminded me of that previous post, today, was an article by Robert Merry in The American Conservative. Consistent with those words about “traditional middle-class respectability” in Weimar Germany, Merry repeatedly complained of deviancy, vulgarity, and obscenity in American culture today.

I can’t really criticize Merry for that. Like most people, probably, I am somewhere between the extremes of high respectability and complete vulgarity. I am rarely if ever eager to hear the dirtiest words that could come out of a person’s mouth; but neither am I an uptight, hypocritical prude. For instance, I have long felt that, as researchers claim, swearing is more likely to come from honest people than from those preoccupied with what others think about them.

The thing I found interesting about Merry’s argument was his way of developing it. If you read only his first and last paragraphs, you would have a picture consistent with his title and subtitle: “Thank You, Stephen Colbert. He revealed how a vulgarian such as Trump could triumph.” Merry feels that Colbert’s crass jokes are exactly why people were willing to overlook Trump’s crass words and thoughts. Essentially, we have been conditioned. We’re used to it.

Again, it’s not a bad point. I’m with Merry when he looks askance at Colbert’s comment, calling Trump a “prick-tator.” It’s not very funny. To me, it is another illustration of why Colbert was just not the right replacement for David Letterman.

But between those opening and closing remarks about Trump and Colbert, Merry spends the bulk of his article dwelling on the “raunchy,” “pioneering,” Jewish comedian known as Lenny Bruce. If Merry had been trying to play the part of the traditionalist pre-Nazi German, then he would also have been doing a pretty good job of casting Bruce in the role of the Jew who abused his media access — who, in Merry’s words, “pushed the envelope of propriety – and then kept pushing,” who “panned everything people held dear, assaulting their most delicate sensibilities and ignoring every societal no-no.” And Bruce’s audiences ate it up, Merry says: “They ate it up all the more when they saw that other people, the ordinary and unsophisticated folks, were offended.” Just like in Weimar Germany.

Merry’s point is plausible. Bruce, he says, was the pioneer, the envelope-pusher, the one who converted stand-up comedy into cultural hardball, turning divergent sensibilities into mutual disgust, dragging down cultural icons with his ridicule. I believe that. I am listening to Merry, and I am remembering the time when my brother took my elderly, rural, conservative parents to sit in the front row at a comedy club — and somehow, frozen in place, they stayed there as one comedian after another poked fun at them with a seemingly endless array of humiliating “jokes” about the sex lives of old people. I don’t understand that mentality. If it destroys someone but gets a few laughs, does that make it OK?

The A.V. Club (Ryan, 2013) agrees with Merry about one thing: older comedians (e.g., Milton Berle, Henny Youngman) were of a different type. In Ryan’s view, they were “begging the audience to laugh.” Ryan says “a new breed of comedians” was more real; their names, he says, were Lenny Bruce, Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman, Mike Nichols, Elaine May, and Tom Lehrer. All Jewish, except for Winters. Berle and Youngman were Jewish too, for that matter — but Time wasn’t calling those older comedians the sicknicks.

Time can be wrong. As I look at Rolling Stone‘s list of the 50 best stand-up comics, I wonder how many of them would have made it without Lenny Bruce — who, in the view of the New York Sun, “fought the [legal and social] battles that enabled other off-color humorists to prosper.” Richard Pryor, no. 1; George Carlin, no. 2; and so on, down the list: Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Joan Rivers — all very funny, partly because they have been free to say almost anything, and to punch holes in almost everything. Yes, there’s Jerry Seinfeld; there’s Robin Williams; there’s Steve Martin; there’s Carson and Letterman and Leno. The lines are blurry here. Clearly, there are Jews and Gentiles who could have gotten big-time laughs without Bruce. But the dominant American view tends to be that you can’t censor your way to freedom. Once you start telling people what they are not allowed to say, it’s hard to stop.

And yet, with all those caveats, Time has tended to speak for something near the center of American politics. When Time comes out with a label that could seem disproportionately applicable to Jewish comedians, my prior post would perceive a wake-up call, a reminder that urinating on values held sacred can make people determined to hurt you, even at considerable cost to themselves.

The focus of that New York Sun article was Howard Stern, another Jewish humorist who clearly profited from Bruce’s groundbreaking work. “Mr. Stern has been able to become a millionaire many times,” the Sun says, whereas “A bankrupt Lenny Bruce died of a drug overdose while the desperate appeals were under way to keep him out of jail.” I was too young for the era of Lenny Bruce, but I was in New York when Stern arrived on the scene. He was a tidal wave. To me, he was often tiresome and sometimes disgusting, but that was irrelevant. He rolled right over the DJs I preferred; he became a phenomenon.

Howard Stern represented what Lenny Bruce made possible, in more ways than one. On his way up, like Bruce, Stern was pushy and offensive. Bruce and other comics had already done a lot. If Stern wanted to attract attention, he had to go to greater extremes; he had to find new sensibilities to offend. But when you go to greater extremes, you also make more enemies, and not just among the traditionalists. Variety (Lowry, 2014) criticized Stern for featuring a KKK leader convicted of murdering Jews. Entertainment Weekly (Fretts, 1993) noted that Stern approved of the police beating of Rodney King. Articles in the Los Angeles Times quoted a National Organization for Women complaint that “Women are being bashed on a daily basis on that show” (Puig, 1992) and named agents and celebrities who had been “personally burned by Stern” (Cerone, 1992).

People noticed the difference between Bruce and Stern. Reviewing Stern’s Private Parts, the New York Times (Goodman, 1993) said, “Bruce, a true radical, seemed to be driven by a passion against hypocrisy; he was on a mission. Mr. Stern, powered by the pleasures of exhibition, is just on a kick.” The New York Sun observed that politicians and intellectuals came out in defense of Lenny Bruce but not in defense of Howard Stern, and offered a reason for the difference: “[W]e have a hard time seeing in what Mr. Stern does the same kind of manic courage that Bruce exhibited.”

People tuned in to Stern’s show, according to New York (Kasindorf, Nov. 23, 1992, p. 41), “to see how far he will go.” The answer was, he would go pretty far — yet, ultimately, even that would not be enough. Agreeing with Merry, the New York Times (Zinoman, 2006) said about Lenny Bruce, “What was once shocking is now nostalgic and expected” — and, likewise, the heyday of radio shock jocks like Stern came to a close. In the words of Thrillist (Jackson, 2016), people like Stern “don’t generate headlines like they used to. They aren’t changing the culture. They aren’t relevant.”

We have, then, a certain trajectory. Like a missile fired into the sky, Lenny Bruce departed radically from standard practice, achieving a high point before arcing back down to the ground. In doing so, he opened new possibilities. He changed the world. On the positive side, his changes brought freedom and insight. On the negative side, his changes brought people like Howard Stern. Not to deny that Stern likewise brought good as well as bad. There has been fun; there may have been some contributions to making the world a better place. But, on balance, Howard Stern is precisely what Merry was talking about, today, in The American Conservative. Stern epitomizes the cheapening of public discourse.

Let there be no doubt: these men became famous because substantial chunks of the larger society were ready for them. Merry himself prefers a snide response, opening with “ha-ha-ha-ha; what sophisticated hilarity” in response to one of Colbert’s remarks. The hypocrisy of the traditionalists was a prime target for Bruce. They had their own cheap side. Among other things, what Merry calls their “delicate sensibilities” and “societal no-nos” were not consistently kindhearted or even reasonable.

Nonetheless, Merry is correct in identifying Bruce as a pioneer in “the coarsening of American society,” and Stern was even more preeminent in making Bruce’s rebellion tawdry. In postwar America, as in 1920s Berlin, these and other Jewish humorists dominated, driving against a very substantial body of traditional culture as if its demise were certain — as if their momentum would continue forever.

If we are to be as frank as Bruce would prefer, we have no choice but to acknowledge this pattern, and to ask why it recurs. In response, we have, for example, the view of Rabbis Without Borders (Markus, 2015), which asserts that today’s Jews “inherit a 2,000-year legacy of disruptive innovation.” Similarly, in Moment (2014), Jonathan Sacks speaks of “the Jewish almost-obsession with asking questions,” and Judea Pearl declares, “The Jewish religion reveres innovation. . . . Whatever you learn in school, you are prepared to discard or question tomorrow.” Others (e.g., Odenheimer, 2014; Wein, 2009) identify a propensity for restlessness and wandering on physical and spiritual levels — a constant Jewish urge to press on, to keep searching.

Yet even that questioning and wandering is not without boundaries. Judaism certainly has its own traditionalists, its own sometimes unreasonable limitations on where one is permitted to go. Reactions to my own previous post illustrate this. My Jewish and pro-Jewish Gentile acquaintances have not generally supported that article’s conclusions. As far as I can tell, it presents well-documented and well-intentioned findings; it just seems not to be what they want to hear.

It is obviously hypocritical to purport to stand for questioning, for a breaking down of barriers to inquiry, and then to erect just such barriers when the questioning turns back upon oneself. The better solution, implied in the previous post, is to do what many younger American Jews now seem to be doing: shed previous generations’ posture of the antagonist who feels free and willing to trash mainstream culture, because s/he remains somewhat alienated from and targeted by it. Don’t take the path that Berlin’s Jews took: don’t prefer the status of an outsider who reaps attention and profit from upsetting and cheapening the lives of ordinary people in the dominant culture. Instead, take some responsibility as a citizen: become integral to and responsible for helping to improve that culture.

In other words, Lenny Bruce and, more so, Howard Stern might not have carried on as they did if they had understood, cared for, and been nurtured by the traditionalism they attacked. Remaining substantially within the mainstream would surely have meant obscurity for them; in Stern’s case, it would have meant having to work hard for the money. For the culture as a whole, a more cautious and gradual approach might mean slower progress. But, done well, it would entail keeping the trust of those who are not yet prepared to take a certain step. It would mean patiently continuing to reach out to such people, and continuing to respect them as fellow citizens, rather than deliberately abandoning and angering them en masse.

From that perspective, I suggest Merry has somewhat missed the mark. The cheap and antagonistic tone of contemporary American sociopolitical discourse is not due primarily to the fact that some people — including, it seems, some number of Jews — want to bring change that traditionalists reject. It is more predominantly due to a divergence in style, between (a) those moderate individuals, liberal or conservative, Jewish or Gentile, who ultimately strive to live at peace with their neighbors and (b) those warlike partisans who are willing to sacrifice so many people, and so many ideals, in order to scratch their own personal itch. Yes, sometimes the market richly rewards the one who breaks the rules at the expense of others. But this is not news. The market is often creative when it undermines the best things in life.

Wikipedia tells us that “the Jewish question” referred to an increasingly antisemitic European debate, continuing for two centuries and culminating in Nazi Germany, regarding the place of Jews in society. This post observes that the discussion has not necessarily ended, because the pattern of Jewish exceptionalism observed in interwar Germany (as described in my previous post) has been obtrusive in postwar American mass entertainment. It is unlikely that people who don’t like Jews will simply overlook the connections made in this post. The essential argument here is that, as in interwar Germany, if you do everything possible to make yourself preeminent among those who abuse and ridicule traditionalists, you cannot be surprised at the ferocity of their eventual retort. The suggested solution is simply to pursue change more thoughtfully and less dismissively.

My odd experience, today, was that I read an article in a relatively moderate conservative American publication. The odd thing about it was that, if that article had mentioned Jews as frankly as this post does, it would not have been out of place in pre-Nazi Germany. Having known some rather anti-Jewish WASPs in New York circa 1980, I was interested in making explicit the whisper and the wink underlying Merry’s words (regardless of whether he, personally, had any such thing in mind).

I do think there can be legitimate concerns about social outsiders who disrupt the party because they, personally, weren’t invited; and I also think there can be legitimate concerns about parties to which some are not invited. In the end, I found Merry persuasive. I would have found him more persuasive, and the implications of his perspective less worrisome, if he had taken a less oppositional, more honestly ambivalent stance toward the good and the bad of Lenny Bruce.


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