Commentary Magazine


Plural Establishment

In two months three substantial articles bearing directly or indirectly on the New Ethnicity have appeared in COMMENTARY: Nathan Glazer's “Ethnicity and the Schools” (September), Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan's “Why Ethnicity?” (October), and Robert Alter's “What Jewish Studies Can Do” (also October). The social-science journals have not been lacking in papers, notes, comments, and disputations. In Center Magazine for July-August let me mention only John Higham's “Integration vs. Pluralism: Another American Dilemma.” Ethnicity seems to be topical.

Like some of those writers, or maybe all of them in some of their moods, I am not sure just what the New Ethnicity is and how real it is. Is it perhaps an artifact? Fifteen and twenty years ago, when ethnicity was thought to be dead or dying, and anyway of little importance, I suspected that the news of its death had been exaggerated, Voting studies confirmed my suspicion. Ethnicity counted, though how to separate out its effects from the effects of religion and class remained unclear. Now that the pendulum has swung, I am perversely inclined to suspect that the news of ethnicity's robust health has been exaggerated.

The thesis of Will Herberg's influential Protestant, Catholic, Jew was that religion had replaced or subsumed ethnicity. Religion, more acceptable in America, could also discharge ethnicity's functions of identity, comfort, community, and continuity. If there has really been a revival of ethnicity, maybe that is due not only to black particularism's success but also to the ethnics' feeling that their religion no longer discharges those functions.

Mostly I have in mind Catholics of European origin. The children of Protestant immigrants from England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Canada rapidly become indistinguishable from old-stock Americans: John Lindsay is not a son of the American Revolution, he is the son of an immigrant from England, and John Kenneth Galbraith was born in Ontario. Nor do Nordics have much trouble. The Journal of Politics for August published an instructive note by Gary C. Byrne and J. Kristian Pueschel, “But Who Should I Vote for County Coroner?,” which shows how Californians choose one candidate rather than another when all the candidates are unknown. Only two kinds of names help a candidate, Scandinavian and English, but Scandinavian a good deal more: +24 per cent and +3 per cent respectively. (The authors do not say why. Because Wright or Baldwin or Wilkins may be black, but hardly Olson?) The biggest handicap is an Italian surname:—39 per cent.

Italians, Poles, most other Slavs, Lithuanians, Hungarians, to some degree Irish—the white, Catholic, immigrant-stock working and lower-middle class of Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Boston—used to know the Church was their friend. They were New Deal, and so was the Church—about unions, social security, unemployment insurance. They were anti-Communist, and so was the Church. The Church supported their values—family, work, order. It was Mother Church. It scolded, as mothers do, but above all it nourished and comforted, as mothers do. In “modern”—i.e., by now rather old-fashioned Reform—Jewish terms, mothers are more priestly than they are prophetic. Most of the time, most people want their religion priestly. If the ethnics were to use such a vocabulary, they might complain that the Church, or a conspicuous or noisy part of it, having given up its priestly, comforting vocation, has become a stepmother. Berrigans and revolutionary nuns have not much that is good to say for the familiar and comforting.

No doubt much of this was inevitable. In the nature of things there is apt to be tension between the elite and folk, pulpit and pew, seminary and congregation. The French used to say that a socialist minister of state was more likely to resemble other ministers of state than to resemble other socialists. Especially nowadays a professor of theology is more likely to resemble other professors than to resemble other members of the communion whose putative theology he is assumed to profess, and his students will be influenced in the same direction. In sum, the academy, with its universalism that tolerates or favors some particularisms but not others, could not easily be prevented from becoming, for growing numbers of clergymen, what social psychologists call the reference group.

As between prophet and priest, professors love the prophet more. Or so they like to think, for love of the prophetic may not be entirely free of self-deception. If the priestly is the ritual, the expected, the repeated, the soothing, then some things that carry a prophetic label may in fact be priestly. A congregation can be made unhappy if its clergyman fails to denounce it for its favorite sin: in one congregation, neglected prayer or profaned sabbaths; in another, more up to date, the internal-combustion engine. Which is to say that denunciation of sin can be ritual, cultic, even when the manifest content is prophetic. Not priests alone are associated with cult. Bible scholarship knows of cultic prophets.

In the Ottoman Empire a Christian priest was also ethnarch, a leader of his ethnos, his people. The priest-ethnarch seems to have been untroubled by his dual role. So it was generally in the United States, too, until the universalist academy—but of course not that alone—made ethnic leadership seem embarrassingly narrow and petty. An old Orthodox Jewish joke: “The Jewish people was healthy, before Rabbis became Doctors.” Greeks and Armenians, especially in their diasporas, are still served by priests who are ethnarchs.

It has always been true that there are prophetic demands, of justice and mercy, which the folk may not like to be reminded of. It is then the duty of a priest, knowing he is priest and not prophet, to remind them. There are difficulties enough in such a situation without our adding to them needlessly, but we have added to them needlessly. In the spirit of the Psychopathology of Everyday Life let me adduce a telling little usage, the fondness of our class of people for the word “change.”

When Peter Marris's Loss and Change becomes available in the United States, I mean to read it. According to the (London) Times Literary Supplement, this book is about what its author learned in fifteen years as a social anthropologist in England and Africa:

. . . the various situations of social change which he has studied . . . have in common the experience of the same kind of psychological crisis as that which follows a bereavement. . . . The closest parallel with bereavement through death is the destruction of homes that goes with slum-clearance, with the separation from accustomed social contacts, and the translation to a new environment which makes the previous way of life impossible. . . . He sees “tribalism” [to which the reviewer prefers “the more precise concept of ethnicity”] as a way of “maintaining a protective social distance,” rather than of defending material interests. . . . Scientists, too, feel bereavement when fundamental theories have to be discarded, and here the analogy with grieving consists in the process by which continuity is reestablished; until this has been done “the profession of science loses confidence in its identity.”

We knew this about change all along. We knew that a changing neighborhood is not changing for the better. Why therefore did we like to call ourselves change agents, why were we disappointed with our communities for their coolness to us when we told them we were coming to make changes? Why did we at least not say “progress” instead of “change”?

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Talking with Catholic friends and colleagues about the replacement of Latin by the vernacular in the Catholic liturgy, I have regretted that they did not ask us Jews what happened when the more progressive of us all but abandoned Hebrew (and abolished chant) in our liturgy. Vernacular Jewish worship has not unarguably made for greater spirituality, or even better synagogue attendance. The reforming progressives wanted Judaism modern, Occidental. Now, in our cities and university towns, some of our young people are chanting again, but in Sanskrit or Pali—languages neither Occidental nor, even in India, vernacular. One has the impression that more of the chanters are from the families of reformers than of Jews who stayed with the traditional liturgy. As a friend of mine has put it, give up krishma (i.e., qeri'at shcma', recitation of the shema': “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, etc.”) and you may find your children praying to Krishna—in his language. If I am not mistaken, it was after Latin had been dropped that glossolalia began to spread among Catholics.

Nor was it the folk, on the whole innocent of Latin, who clamored to get rid of it. If they did not know it here, neither had their parents or grandparents known it' in Europe. They were content with vernacular sermons and confession and facing pages in the missal. Latin was removed by Latinists. They gave the folk what it did not ask for. It asked for continuity in the midst of frightening change.

Neither did the folk ask for the abolition of meatless Friday. In Catholic theology abstinence from meat is a penance, and contemporary theologians do not think highly of it. Is it penitential, they ask, to substitute lobster Newburg for lean meat? Agreed. But suppose the folk liked meatless Friday not so much for penance as from a habit that expressed the human need for sacral eating? What is Thanksgiving without turkey, Purim without hamantashen Especially among the educated the triumph of the secular, the desacralized, is old hat, yet it is precisely the educated who are resacralizing food—for I do not believe that the vogue of the organic is just a matter of nutritional science. A man I have been told about used to upbraid his brother for sinning against reason by continuing to observe kashruth. For that man's children organic is not enough. They insist on macrobiotic. Organic is only kosher, macrobiotic is glat kosher.

Since the end of Latin and of Friday meatlessness, Catholic church attendance has fallen off sharply. From all this it may be deduced that when one thinks it necessary to be radical about changing substance, one should be all the more conservative about keeping form. If the Catholic ethnics are now more ethnic and less Catholic, should we applaud? Of a church that is universal—catholic—but that also must care for the particular groupings into which its communicants fall, we can expect a better management of the tension between universal and particular than we can expect of groupings that are particularist and little else.

_____________

In France, Péguy said, “Tout commence en mystique et finit en politique.” In the United States, we may say that everything begins with sociology and ends with government programs. No one knows what “ethnic” is exactly, yet it figures in regulations drawn up by civil servants and determines who shall dispose of millions of dollars. If the tax laws encourage the unnecessary production of widgets, widgets will be produced. That is distorting, but at least for the Internal Revenue Service all widgets are widgets. In other reaches of the bureaucracy, not all ethnic groups are ethnic: to be “ethnic” is to be “disadvantaged.” In the United States there are almost as many people of Italian descent as black people, but an Italian who wants to go to one of the elite colleges is not entitled to affirmative action, as it is called, though the black presence in those colleges is significantly greater than the Italian. Orientals are entitled to affirmative action, though Daniel P. Moynihan has reported that of all groups in America the Chinese have the highest proportion of Ph.D.'s, and though everyone knows that from the low point of thirty years ago the Japanese have gone ahead and done well.

To be accepted as a college student or teacher, it helps to have a Spanish surname. Castro is surely a Spanish surname. The Italian immigrant of that name has made a fortune in convertible sofas. Do his grandchildren get affirmative action? Would the Bolivian tin billionaire Patino's heirs, if they were to come to the United States? If DeFunis had borne a different Sephardi name-Franco, say, or Lopez—would he have had that trouble with his law school?

If I am a black immigrant from the West Indies, why should the son of an immigrant from Hungary agree that I am entitled to compensation? Why should he agree that I am entitled to compensation if I am an Argentine immigrant with a Spanish name? (How do you justify favoring Argentines with Spanish names over Argentines with Italian or Jewish names?) Why should not that son of Hungarian immigrants try to make a Hungarian name as advantageous as a Spanish one? And if Hungarian, why not the rest of a long list, including English and Scotch-Irish? (Think of Appalachia.) The best thing we can do for ethnicity is to remove it from codes, regulations, and guidelines.

Tammany, a buffer between the reality of groups and a Constitution that knew only individuals, reconciled the balanced ticket and the anonymous civil-service examination (though it liked patronage better). When we do formally what Tammany did informally we get the quotas of the 1972 Democratic convention. The election gauged their appeal.

Codes and regulations create interests. If tomorrow, miraculously, the income tax were abolished, all would rejoice; but not quite all. There are those who have an interest in the income tax—not only the examiners of the Internal Revenue Service, and not only the economists of the Treasury and the Congressional committees, but also the tax lawyers and the tax accountants, and the tax-law and tax-accountancy publishers, and their employees and suppliers and dependents. And so with ethnicity. If people rely upon its official status for livelihood and position, they will fight its being restored to unofficial status. I know a man who makes his living as a contract-compliance consultant, telling companies and local governments how to deal with—mostly, how to fill out reports for, and how to avoid antagonizing—the “minority” specialists in Washington. This man, too, no less than the minority deans and recruiters and negotiators of recruitment goals and timetables (on the one hand) and the minority specialists in the government bureaus (on the other hand), needs ethnicity, or some ethnicities, to be the business of government bureaus. As in the notorious relation between the regulatory agencies and the industries they regulate, de facto collusion between the ethnic regulators and the ethnically regulated is inherent. They have in common an interest in ethnic regulation.

_____________

Plural establishment is Matthew Arnold's idea, though he does not seem to have used that form of words. A parent, Arnold acted on the principle of sensible parents: “Go see what the children are doing, and tell them to stop.” Is our son a jock? Tell him to read more. Is our daughter a bookworm? Tell her to exercise more. Are the people too Hebraic? Tell them to be more Hellenic. Too Hellenic? Tell them to be more Hebraic.

To try and draw lessons for America from Arnold's way of thinking is a questionable enterprise. He refused to celebrate the fundamental American doctrine—disestablishment, the separation of church and state. It was that doctrine which animated the many Englishmen who succeeded in disestablishing the (Anglican) Church of Ireland. Without great hope, Arnold kept arguing for plural or multiple establishment instead. Keep the Church of Ireland established, he said, but establish also the Roman Catholic Church, of the great mass of the Irish, and the Presbyterian Church, of the majority in the northern counties. He thought Louis Napoleon's France right to establish not only Catholicism but also Protestantism and Judaism. Arnold's instinct was to include, to gather in. Before ever there was a sociology of religion he knew about church and sect. He liked church and disliked sect. Church was established, sect was hole-in-corner (he was fond of the colloquialism). Sects were cranky and lopsided, churches broad and historical. Establish a sect and it becomes a church, bringing sectaries into the mainstream. To the fairness of disestablishing the established he preferred the fairness and wisdom of severally establishing the disestablished.

It may be downright tactless to invoke Arnold when talking about American things. He thought separationist America deficient in culture, even more philistine than the philistine English middle class. But it is not tactless to recall his feeling for an inclusiveness that yet was at ease with distinctiveness, for distinctiveness that yet was not the same as hole-in-corner isolation.

Arnold had no high regard for what he called machinery, and Americans are supposed to love machinery. We have harmed ourselves, I think, by denying tax support to schools sponsored by religious bodies or affiliated with them. The legal argument against support has been from the no-establishment clause of the Constitution, but the more accessible argument has been from public policy: denominational education, we are told, is divisive. Researchers have found that people educated in those allegedly divisive schools are citizens much like those educated in tax-supported schools. That makes no difference. Legally—Arnold would say, mechanically—the schools of Imamu Baraka's followers in Newark are public, tax-supported. That they are more divisive than zealous anti-papists ever suggested the Catholic schools were, is beside the point. The machinery cannot be faulted. Let justice be done though the heavens fall—and though it is not entirely beyond dispute that justice is factually being done.

Because Arnold cared about culture not machinery, if he were alive among us today he would see that we do have an established religion—“established” in the monopolizing sense he disliked—and that its name is paganism. We cannot see that. Paganism a religion, never mind the established one? If it were, would we not send our checks to the First Pagan Church and claim a tax deduction? (In fact, the Supreme Court itself has declared “Secular Humanism” to be an American religion. Secular humanism is Enlightenment, and a noted authority calls the Enlightenment, approvingly, modern paganism.)

_____________

Like that man in Boswell, I try to be a philosopher, but cheerfulness keeps breaking in.

Everybody knows that being a Jew is not “religious”—as being a Methodist, say, is religious. But that does not make us ethnic, either. The very history of “ethnic” should be cautionary. New Testament hoi ethnikoi and Septuagint and New Testament ta ethne render Hebrew (ha-)goyim—Gentiles, pagans. (At some future time I hope to return to my dissatisfaction with the New English Bible. In the meantime, consider Romans 1:13. Paul writes the Christians in Rome that he would like to have a successful mission among them, as he has had en tois loipois ethnesin: Vulgate, in ceteris gentibus; Luther, unter andern Heiden; King James Version, “among other Gentiles”; Revised Standard Version, “among the rest of the Gentiles”; Jerusalem Bible, 1966, “among the other pagans”; New American Bible, 1970, “among the other Gentiles,”; but NEB, without so much as a note, “in other parts of the world.”)

I went to high school and college by subway, which was full of Jews (and Italians). On the subway I studied Latin and French but not, though I was continuing with my Jewish studies, Hebrew. The exotic alphabet of a Greek grammar was suitable, of a Hebrew one unsuitable. Some Jews I have read about, a generation or so older than I, got sick when they saw anyone reading a Yiddish newspaper on the train. I was not that bad. All I did was to act on the unwritten law that Hebrew print was to be kept away from the public, American domain—including the subway, with all those other Jews riding it. Hebrew was to be read at home or in some specifically Jewish place. The slogan of the Haskalah was, Be a human being abroad and a Jew at home. I obeyed it before I had heard of it. In retrospect, it is not hard to understand either the slogan or the obedience. It is only hard to admire them.

That was when I was young.

Not long ago a girl told me what had happened while she was on a bus in the town we live in, where the proportion of Jews is nothing like what it was in the New York of my youth. For her, the background of her story was that she had a Bible open, for memorizing the Song of the Sea—“Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song, etc.”—that being her Hebrew-school assignment. For me, her open Hebrew Bible was the foreground. She had never learned that you do not open a Hebrew book in public.

When an Orthodox rabbi's son, who had attended yeshivot, went to college, the rabbi told him, “As a graduate student I didn't feel I had to keep my head covered all the time. If you don't feel like it, don't.” The son answered, “Yes, I know your generation had problems.” I resist the temptation to tell a dozen more stories like these, except that I will repeat what a holdover from the bad old days said when she saw a young man wearing a kippah at the Ivy League university she was intensely grateful to for having admitted her son, a mere Jew. Told that the grotesque phenomenon was an instructor, no less, she cried out, “After all the university has done for him, this is how he repays it?!”

The same university, which when I was young-stood for everything remote and forbiddingly May-flower, this year, in its invitation to a parents' weekend, promised a Saturday brunch of blintzes with sour cream, pastrami, bagels with lox and cream cheese, and chopped chicken liver. The menu was farcical, the intention serious.

_____________

In this respect, at least, young people are healthier than my generation was, and their America healthier than ours. Arnold would not have been surprised. He expected plural religious establishment to be good for individual souls and for the country, and he would have had no reason to draw the line at plural ethnic or religious-and-ethnic establishment. Our young people are beneficiaries of the newish plural establishment. So are their elders, and the country.

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