The Problem with Today’s Intellectuals when they Think about Culture: Sloppy Symmetry

I’m in the midst of an email exchange with a number of people as a result of my pieces on culture. Part of the issue concerns the way different cultures handle honor and shame, emotions prominent in every society and every individual who ever lived. As in the political world, with the matter of libido dominandi, different cultures handle these universal feelings differently. I personally restrict honor-shame cultures proper to those societies in which it is accepted, expected, even required to shed blood for the sake of honor.

In my search for people who have handled these complex and politically charged issues, I’ve found lots of cases of good work spoiled by a sloppy kind of symmetry in which the author dare not distinguish between various cultures. Russell Jacoby, one of our more prominent intellectuals, the  Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair of Critical Theory (at least he has a sense of humor), has written a book on the roots of violence, an obvious topic of interest for me: Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present (Free Press, 2011)

Alas, the book is full of even-handed passages in which cultures far less prone to violence must be matched to depressingly violent societies, and texts of great subtlety on the subject get reduced to caricatures to “make the point.”

Enmity marks the relationship of brothers throughout the Hebrew Bible. Esau considered killing Jacob; Joseph’s brothers contemplated killing Joseph.96 “Am I my brother’s keeper?” rings out as the great rhetorical question of Western culture. (Russell Jacoby, Bloodlust, pp. 61-62).

Actually, Jacoby might have gotten away with this had he written “… throughout Genesis.” But even there, that’s not the case. In the patriarchal narratives – i.e., Abraham’s progeny of “God’s chosen,” self-control and reconciliation replace the fratricidal impulse. And while sibling rivalry is a major theme of the patriarchal narrative, there is a clear progression from the zero-sum hostilities of the first generations (Ishmael-Isaac, Esau-Jacob), explicitly made worse by parental favoritism, to the remarkable positive-sum resolution (through atonement and forgiveness) of the third generation, where all the brothers inherit the blessing (despite parental favoritism).

And the following three books of the Pentateuch (Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers) feature probably the most exceptional and dynamic sibling collaboration in the history of world narratives: Moses and Aaron. Did Jacoby stop reading at Genesis? Or did he just want to make a point about how the fratricidal origins of civilization in which these tales, suitably reduced to their lowest denominator (sibling rivalry) offer us, in Hannah Arendt’s terms, “cogent metaphors or universally applicable tales (p. 58).” In any case he managed to profoundly misrepresent a foundational text in search of the “universal.”

Is it any surprise then, that when he gets to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he goes for the same symmetry, kin rivalries.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict also is waged not between strangers but rather between kindred peoples. In the heady years after World War I, when the Arabs and the Jews sensed the possibility of independent states, the principals emphasized the kinship of their peoples. That was a moment when a defeated Ottoman Empire gave the victorious Europeans the power to divvy up the Middle East and to create new countries both for diasporan Jews and for the Arabs, who had been dominated by the Turks. Faisal Ibn Husain, who would become king of Iraq, met with Chaim Weizmann, who would become the first president of Israel. In the aftermath of the encounter, Faisal declared that “the two main branches of the Semitic family, Arabs and Jews, understood one another.” He called the Jews our “nearest relations” and “our cousins.” Of course this could be a problem.

Especially for the Arabs who pursued an alliance with their cousins the Jews, and often enough got themselves assassinated by their brothers.

“We Israelis resemble our Arab enemies in more ways than we care to know,” writes Avner Falk, an Israeli psychologist, in a book titled Fratricide in the Holy Land. Falk refers to character traits, customs, food, and dress. He reminds us that Jews and Arabs believe they descend from two biblical half brothers, Isaac and Ishmael. “From the psychological viewpoint, the Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs think, feel and act like rival brothers who are involved in a fratricidal struggle.”68 He notes also that “almost half of the Israeli Jewish population came from Arab or Muslim countries” and that “many of them are culturally and linguistically Arab.”69 This does not mean that this population appreciated their Arab counterparts more than the European Jews might. Closeness has bred contempt. Sephardic Jews—at least those from the Middle East—are generally much more anti-Arab than the Ashkenazi from Europe and Russia. The assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin came from a family of Yemenite Jews and believed Rabin to be too conciliatory toward Arabs. He declared after his arrest in 1995, “I was afraid an Arab might kill him [Rabin]. I wanted Heaven to see that a Jew had done this.”70 (Jacoby, pp. 52-3).

One would not know from this account, that the degree of fratricide among Arabs is as stunningly high as it is low among Jews. Every Arab “uprising” has a rate of internecine murder equal to or higher than that of Arabs killed by outsiders (1936-39, first intifada). Not only does Jacoby get a self-critical Jew to obliterate the differences, but he focuses on one of the rare cases of fratricide among Jews (Rabin). As a result, he can cram the Israeli-Arab conflict into the same procrustean bed as all this other examples. Indeed, who knows how he’s mutilating those other cases to fit his symmetrical pattern.

I do not question Jacoby’s commitment to finding ways out of the violence against stranger and brother that we see around the world (writing a book is no mean feat). I just question whether some of the folks engaged in finding answers are sufficiently committed to the task that they will violate the politically correct dogmas of our age in order to think clearly. After all, would Chris Hedges have given him a laudatory blurb had he not put the Israelis in their place?

Nietzsche once compared thinking to diving into an ice-cold pond and seizing a stone lying on the bottom. Time to wet more than our feet.

5 Responses to The Problem with Today’s Intellectuals when they Think about Culture: Sloppy Symmetry

  1. a) with his example of Joseph & The Brothers, not having read the book, does he mark the fact that it is a brother who attempts to save Joseph or does he analyze the arguments between them (and if this a cultural thing, the Midrashic interpretations can be illuminating in terms of the literary and cultural legacy bequeathed such as:

    Israel loved Joseph more than all his children… And his brothers envied him (37:3, 11)

    “Love is strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6)–this is the love with which Jacob loved Joseph… “Envy is harsh as the grave” (ibid.)–this is the envy of the brothers to Joseph. What can love achieve in the face of envy? (Midrash Tanchuma)

    Said Resh Lakish in the name of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah: A man must not discriminate among his children, for on account of the coat of many colors which our father Jacob made for Joseph, “They hated him…”
    (Midrash Rabbah)

    b) kindred or not (and despite Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi’s theory with others that a major group of Arabs in the country consists of Jews who remained within the Land of Israel, though they were forced to abandon their religion and lost its original identity. Due to the change in
    the name of the land by a Roman emperor from Judea to Palestina,
    the descendants of these forced converts, together with a small
    minority of others are recently called “Palestinians”), the Arabs of the past century, challeneged by Zionism, have acted with total irrationality – political, diplomatic and otherwise – and an uncompromising attitude in contradistinction to the Jews. There is a major difference and no true symmetry.

  2. J. says:

    How about Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’?

  3. Ray in Seattle says:

    You ask, ” After all, would Chris Hedges have given him a laudatory blurb had he not put the Israelis in their place?”

    Or, would a publisher even be asking for a blurb for a more objective book that did not deem worth the risk and effort to publish – especially when there are so many candidates out there that do stroke the more fashionable “bad-Jew” narrative.

  4. yuval says:

    i made the same point about fratricide in Maraah. The symmetry elicited between Jews and Pallies is that they are both Peoples vying for the same land. However, this symmetry flies in the dface of reality. The Pallies were never a people, as the Syrians, the Lebanese, the Saudis, the Iraquis are not Poeples. They are merely tribes residing or dirifting through empires, with no affiliation to a specific land. Thus, when authority fails, they kill each other with abandon. The only real People in the region are the Jews, in Judea, Israelites in Israel, Hebrews in the Holy land, who prove their peoplehood by the extraordinarily low level of fratricide. The Jewish culture is love they brother. The Arab culture is “honor” killing.

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