The American Conservative, December 2009

Florence-King

Florence King

Fifteen writers list “The Best Books You Haven’t Read“; I don’t know about you, but the only one on any of the lists that I had read was Sam Tanenhaus’ pick, The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham.  And that one did not make a very good impression; it struck me as one part dumbed-down Max Weber and three parts shameless plagiarism from Lawrence Dennis.  The other books all sound good, though.  In particular, David Bromwich’s recommendations of two stories by Elizabeth Bowen (“Mysterious Kor” and “Sunday Afternoon”) sent me to the library.  And I always take notice when Florence King speaks; she recommends Kathleen Winsor’s Star Money, which upon its publication in 1950 was received as quasi-pornography.  That first edition sold extremely well, but garnered just one respectful review.  Granted, that review was by André Maurois, which may have taken some of the sting out of the rejection by the other critics.   

Florence King also comes to my mind whenever the name of Ayn Rand is mentioned, and in this issue a piece discusses Ayn Rand’s  Atlas Shrugged.  King’s review of a biography of Rand, reprinted in her With Charity Toward None, quotes a line of Rand’s about how it feels to be a truly creative individual confronted with the unreasoning hatred of lesser beings.  Read the line again, King says, and you’ll realize that it is a very apt description what it’s like to be on the receiving end of any kind of senseless prejudice.  King surmises that Rand, who spent her girlhood as a Jew in late-Tsarist St Petersburg, had found “a way to write about anti-semitism without ever mentioning the Jews.”  That’s a neat trick. 

Nor is it the whole of Rand’s appeal.  Her extreme individualism may not stand up to philosophical analysis, and it may not survive exposure to any well-developed social science.  But what she tries to offer is something that is urgently needed in today’s world.  Look at the USA.  Ever more of the young are in schools, ever more of the old are in nursing homes, ever more of those in-between are in prisons.  At this rate every American will eventually be an inmate in one or another such institution, always an object of service, of scrutiny, of control.  One will create nothing, own nothing, decide nothing.  The major political parties don’t seem to object to this trend; on the contrary, both are committed to accelerating it.  The Democrats promise better accommodations to inmates; the Republicans remind them that the institutions in which they are confined have to turn a profit.  Rand may not have known how to stop this trend, but at least she demanded that it should be stopped.   

A review of George Gilder’s The Israel Test includes a couple of provocative paragraphs:

After thumbing through The Israel Test, blogger Matthew Yglesias speculated that Gilder may be a kind of WASP who “likes Israel in part because he wishes American Jews would leave him alone and go live there instead.” This interpretation strikes me as insufficient. Perhaps a better one can be derived from Gilder’s final chapter, in which he paints a portrait of his artistically and financially successful ancestors and the upper-class WASP world in which he was raised. The focal point is an incident that occurred when he was about 17. While trying to impress an older girl, his summer tutor in Greek, he blurted out something mildly anti-Semitic. The young woman dryly replied that she was in fact “a New York Jew.” Gilder was mortified. He relates that he has never quite gotten over the episode. It is the kind of thing a sensitive person might long remember. Variations on this pattern are not uncommon in affluent WASP circles to this day: guilt or embarrassment at some stupid but essentially trivial episode of social anti-Semitism serve as a spur for fervent embrace of Likud-style Zionism. Atonement. It would not be surprising if a similar process helped to shape George W. Bush’s mentality.

This sequence might be amusing if the real-life consequences were less sinister. It is now often acknowledged—if not widely regretted—that Palestinians have had to pay the price for Nazism and the Holocaust. It is they, after all, not the Germans, who are now stateless. But Gilder’s confession, and the book it animates, establishes a corollary to this truism: Palestinians are now required to pay not only for the crimes of the Nazis but for the genteel anti-Semitism of America’s fallen WASP elite. 

How right these paragraphs are, I don’t know.  They fit very nicely with my usual suspicion that philosemitism, including “Christian Zionism,” is simply an aspect of antisemitism. 

Eve Tushnet is proud of her column this month, a description of Washington, DC’s Martin Luther King, Junior Public Library.

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