Jews and Irish: Latecomers to Modernity

Excerpts from chapter 19 of John Murray Cuddihy's The Ordeal of Civility (continue reading):

If there are unique elements in the story of the Jewish struggle with modernity, there are, nevertheless, parallels with other peoples. Reasoning is the act of comparing and connecting, as well as of contrasting and distinguishing. I share the rationalist hope of which Alfred North Whitehead speaks: "That we fail to find in experience any elements intrinsically incapable of exhibition as examples of general theory, is the hope of rationalism." 1 There follow, accordingly, two exploratory probes in comparative analysis: Jew and Irish will be compared as latecomers to modernity, and secular Jewish intellectuals will be viewed as a modernizing elite, involving a comparison of Jewish Emancipation and the "new nations" of the post-World War II period.

It is the fate of latecomers to modernity among "new nations" entering an already stratified international community to suffer, especially in the person of their leaders, the self-disesteem of what Gustavo Lagos calls "atimia." Atimia is the loss of status or honor relative to other nations experienced by "underdeveloped" countries on entering the international "modernization-stratification" system of post-World War 11. 2 The self-disesteem of the atimic process was experienced earlier in the "delayed modernization" of nations like Japan and Germany, but also, I contend, in the delayed modernization of minorities within the modernizing nations of the West such as Eastern European and Russian Jewry and the Irish Catholics. The story of the Irish famine of the 184os which killed a million Irish and drove them into the rapidly modernizing world of Anglo-American Protestantism is a case study in the phenomenon of "delayed modernization." 3 The story of the Russian pogroms of the 188os which killed thousands of Eastern European Jews and drove them out of their Middle Ages into the Anglo-American world of the goyim "beyond the pale" has yet to be told as a case study in the phenomenon of delayed modernization.*

Once in the world of the modern West, the Irish and the Jews set about constructing social organizations and engineering conceptual apologia that would shelter themselves, their Yiddishkeit and "Irishkeit," from the subversive lure of the massive American Thing. The Irish defined their enemy as a religious heresy and called it the Americanist heresy. The Jews, using their own word for apostasy, called it assimilation. The Irish Catholics, convinced that to maintain their cultural belief and value system in partibus infidelium implied retaining control of the machinery of secondary socialization, constructed their far-ranging parochial school system. The Jews, convinced that to maintain their shtetl subculture intact in Galut required life with their own people, 4 "constructed" their teeming Lower East Side system. Churches and seminaries were built, diocesan weeklies printed; shuls and yeshivoth were built, Yiddish newspapers appeared. To retain their subjective plausibility, Berger and Luckmann write, subcultures "require subsocieties as their objectivating base, and counter-definitions of reality require countersocieties." 5

This whole story has been told and retold to death as an interreligious cowboy story, the good guys against the bad, Catholic versus WASP, Jew versus Christian. To say this is, to be sure, to grasp a valid dimension of what actually happened, but to recount it exclusively as a Kulturkampf —of minority culture against majority culture, minority religion against majority religion—is to throw history out of focus, to skirt sociology altogether, and to debar oneself from exploring the possibility that these essentially minority reports of what happened are themselves self-serving interpretations, weapons in the status-politics of subcultures, part of the problem to be analyzed and not the solution to it.

To open out this story of the immigrant minorities and the proverbial melting pot to a larger perspective and a comparative approach, I view these two subsocieties with their countercultures as underdeveloped societies bearing relatively traditional cultures, as societies within the West and only recently granted independence (Jewish Emancipation, Catholic Emancipation), as forced to undergo the special pathology of "delayed modernization" right under the proper nose of their erstwhile "colonial" overseer, the Puritan WASP modernist core culture. For example, David Riesman has said that it is the special peculiarity of America that it "happens to have colonials—Negroes and other ethnic minorities— within its borders. . . . Upon the Jewish minority, this situation operates with special force" 6 (my emphasis).

It does indeed, and this chapter spells out a number of parallels between Diaspora Jewry and the phenomenon of delayed modernizers. [. . .]

There is a second related but different parallel between Jewry dispersed in the West, exiting from its Middle Ages only in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and nations, old or new, entering the international stratification system and discovering their underdeveloped "backwardness": ghetto Jewry at the time of Jewish Emancipation was "backward," and everybody was agreed that it was "backward," but no one was agreed as to why it was so "backward." During the Enlightenment period, when the question was debated, advocates of emancipating the Jews, both Jewish and Gentile, said that the present state of the Jews was due to the persecution and segregation that had been enforced upon them during the Middle Ages in the West, and not due to biology or any indigenous failings of Jewish culture. This theory of the involution of Diaspora Jewry upon contact with the destructive if more evolved West came to be called by Salo Baron (the famous Columbia University historian of Jewry) the "lachrymose conception" of prerevolutionary Jewish history. 7 In this conception, Jewish woes and degradations due to the Diaspora milieu are exaggerated by Reform Jews, Zionists, and others because in this way it could be argued that Jews, despite appearances, were—in the words of Rabbi Schorsch—"culturally qualified for the rights and responsibilities of citizenship." S The sociological reason for concentrating on medieval persecutions, he continues, was "the desire to attribute the defects of Jewish life, so often cited to justify the denial of emancipation, to the intolerance of a hostile Christian majority." 9 This attribution struggle, as it may be called, goes on when new nations receive independence: to whom do we attribute a given failing? To the colonial powers? To our own indigenous tradition? To both?

[. . .] Another parallel is the condition of being caught between tradition and modernity. Edward Shils, in his brilliant monograph The Intellectual Between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation (1961) details the social-psychological and other consequences of being trapped between the tug of tradition and the lure of modernity. In a similar case, Stanley Burnshaw recounts the situation of the pioneering Hebrew poets and intelligentsia of the 189os. These "enlighteners," born and reared in the tradition-bound shtetl, were suddenly plunged into the secular world of prerevolutionary Russia: "While accepting a modern view of man intellectually, they remained emotionally bound to their strictly Jewish experience. [. . .]

The nineteenth-century "revolution" that was Jewish Emancipation is like the twentieth-century revolutions described by historian R. R. Palmer. These revolutions, whether in Russia or China or in formerly colonial areas, are alike in "having been precipitated by contacts with an outside or foreign civilization, and by the stresses, maladjustments, feelings of backwardness and other ambivalences ensuing thereupon," Palmer writes. The French Revolution, on the other hand, he writes, "grew directly out of earlier French history. The French were untroubled by any feeling of backwardness, they did not have to strain to keep up in a march of progress." 12 The almost continuous immigration of Jews into Western Europe and Anglo-America from the culturally "backward" areas of the pale has brought it about that they have lived a revolutionary situation of the twentieth-century type from the nineteenth century on up to our own day. This mixed chronological profile, this mixture of anachronism and progressivism, is, according to Mary Matossian, a characteristic of delayed modernization. 13 Discrepant traits are exhibited by any people who are committed to a crash program of modernization, who are leapfrogging over centuries, syncopating long developmental processes.

Another parallel is the affinity to Marxist ideology. Frank Lindenfeld, noting that the Russian Revolution was precisely not a revolution spearheaded by a proletarian uprising but a modernizing movement led by native intellectuals who adopted a Marxist ideology, goes on to observe that "revolutions" carried out by groups calling themselves Marxists have occurred, significantly, only in underdeveloped countries like Russia, China, and Cuba. 14 Indeed, Talcott Parsons notes, "evidence has been accumulating which would appear to indicate that the appeal of the radical left in a given society bears an inverse relation to the degree of industrialization of that society." 15 This is true, but in the frame of analysis I propose, Marxism and other ideologies do appeal, even in the developed countries, to certain subcultures—ethnic, religious, and regional—undergoing the excruciation of delayed modernization. In this respect, progressivism for midwestern "Bible Belt" Protestantism, Coughlinism and McCarthyism for Irish Catholics, and Stalinism- Marxism-Trotskyism for Eastern European Jews all perform the same latent function: they appeal to the premodern Gemeinschaft-type past of these subcultures. Parsons interprets Communist ideology as a "statement of the symbolic values of modernization in which symbolic covert gestures of reconciliation are made toward both the past and the future" 16 ( my emphasis). The first of these covert gestures, he goes on to say, involves the attempt to preserve "the integrity of the premodern system; and I believe that this is the primary significance of the symbol, socialism. In essence, the purpose of this device is to assure us that the process of differentiation which is inherent in modernization need not jeopardize the integrity of preindustrial community solidarity .... Communist ideology," he concludes, is "primarily defensive and protectionist in character." 17 This covert neotraditionist appeal of Marxism for the Eastern European Jewish intelligentsia is paralleled by the more overtly neotraditionalist appeal of Father Charles Coughlin in the thirties and Senator Joseph McCarthy in the fifties for their "natural" constituency, the urban Irish Catholics. In large part, writes Jack Newfield in his memoir of and apologia for Robert Kennedy, "it was Kennedy's cultural conditioning as a Boston [Irish] Catholic that made it so easy for him to make a mistake of the magnitude of working for—and admiring—Joe McCarthy. ' For Kennedy to drift into the atavistic subculture of McCarthyism was as logical as for a proletarian Jew at [New York] City College in the 193os to become a Marxist." 18 Father Leonard Feeney, S.J., of the famous Boston heresy case in the 195os, was expressing the cultural-theological aspect of this same problem of the delayed modernization of the Irish in modernized, Protestant America. His yearning was for the past. Walking in the North End of Boston in the Italian Catholic section, vividly aware of the persisting close-knit Gemeinschaft infrastructure of Italian, as against Boston Irish, Catholicism, he exclaims: "I wish to God that we could replace the thing we call culture with this. These people really live. Look at the children!" 18 (Not a few members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade felt similarly about Spain. German fascism represented, among other things, modernization; communism seemed to promise a Gemeinschaft. The love affair of the Left with Spain has many roots.)

[. . .] In all of this we see the first stages in the politics of the intellectuals of the underdeveloped countries anticipated in nineteenth-century Europe and repeated in twentieth-century America. In the underdeveloped countries, the intellectuals first drive for constitutional liberalism and the moral renewal of their people (think of India up to World War I). Here the colonized, in the person of their representatives, meet the colonizers with the decorum of bourgeois Victorian liberals and request positions in the civil service, appointive offices, and "balanced tickets." This first stage is the stage of "the notables," according to Edward A. Shils. 20 It is, in our comparative frame, the era of the shtadlan, when Jewish notables represented as-yet-unemancipated Jewry in the courts and councils of Europe. "The court Jews and their successors, the Jewish bankers and businessmen in the West," writes Hannah Arendt, "were never socially acceptable" 21—and, what is more, never wanted to be. The generations of political intellectuals that followed, however, were much more ambivalent about their identity. The Jewish notables had no desire to leave the Jewish people, she writes, "while it was characteristic of Jewish intellectuals that they wanted to leave their people and be admitted to society." 22

In the second stage, a fervently politicized nationalism—the product, paradoxically, of the identity-ambivalence of the native intelligentsia— gets under way. India was the first of all the underdeveloped colonial countries to go through this phase in which the older generation of liberal constitutionalists and piecemeal reformers is regarded as "excessively subservient to the foreign rulers and as excessively bemused by their foreign culture and their foreign forms of government. ... The politics of cultured and urbane gentlemen, speaking French or English to perfection, was not for this generation," concludes Shils. 23 We see parallel developments later in Egypt, East Africa, Syria, Iraq. We see the same pattern repeated in Europe for the Irish and the Jews, and repeated—and foreshortened—in America for Irish Catholics, Eastern European Jews, and blacks. We see the nationalism, the fanaticized consciousness, the socialism, the populism, the oppositionalism and moralism, the rejection of a civil for an ideological politics.

The sheer fact of the more advanced societies constitutes a "culture shock" for the less advanced when, in the person of their modernizing intellectual elite, culture contact is established. What Kelsen calls "the normative power of facticity" 24 adds up to a demeaning "assault." The values and life-style of the colonial power—or, for the indigenous minorities within a more general core culture, the meanings and beliefs of the "oppressive majority"—constitute a status-wound to the normal narcissism of peoples and nations. The defense (apologia) against this "assault" we call ideology.

Assaulted in the West by the West and its modernity, Jewish intellectuals produce the full spectrum of required ideology: the Zionism of Hess and Herzl; the communism of Marx, Lassalle, Trotsky, Luxemburg, and Bernstein; the cultural apologetics of the Society for Jewish Culture and Learning; and the ideology called "Hebraism." Hebraism is the tactic of admitting one's inferiority in terms of power in order to claim moral superiority in terms of indigenous spirituality and simplicity. It is a standing temptation for the modernizing intellectual. It is an ideology of delayed modernization.

"Hebraism" was for the unsynagogued, secular Jewish intellectual what Reform Judaism was for the German Jew still committed to "formal" membership in a Jewish—albeit a "reformed" Jewish—community. Both these ideologies elided the "shameful" Talmudic "interlude" of Yiddishkeit. Both recurred to the Hebrew Bible, traded on its high prestige in the West, and glorified their ancient ancestors as the "seedbed" of all that was noble in the West. (Unlike the Soviet Russians, they never claimed to have invented baseball.) Using invidious comparisons, the "assaulted intellectuals" of Reform Judaism and Hebraism thus launched their mission civilizatrice to Gentile Europe.

[. . .] This is the traditional language of a modernizing elite vis-a-vis the ex–colonial powers. The particular historical texture of such traditional "emancipation talk"—Rieff's identification with "the proud, elitist culture of [ancient] Israel" f 27—must not mislead the student of modernization; structurally the ideology of "Hebraism" is identical with the function performed by the status-talk of a Gandhi, a Coomaraswamy, an Ataturk, a Chester-Belloc, or, more recently, a Qaddafi. As Professor Mary Matossian writes:
The "assaulted intellectual" works hard to make invidious comparisons between his own nation and the West. He may simply claim that his people are superior, as did Gandhi: "We consider our civilization to be far superior to yours." Or he may hold that his ancestors had already rejected Western culture as inferior. But these assertions can elicit conviction only among a few and for a short while. More often the intellectual says, "We are equal to Westerners," or "You are no better than I am." Around this theme lies a wealth of propositions: (i ) "In the past you were no better (or worse) than we are now." (2) "We once had your good qualities, but we were corrupted by alien oppressors" [the Chinese use the Manchus as scapegoat, Arabs blame Ottoman sultans, Russians blame Mongols]. (3) "We have high spiritual qualities despite our poverty, but you are soulless materialists" [e.g., Sun Yat-sen]. (4) "Everything worthwhile in your tradition is present or incipient in ours" [e.g., the Koran favors parliamentary rule]. 28 [My emphasis]
The Celtic revival was an example of this sort of subcultural statuspolitics. So was the social construction of Reform Judaism and its selfassignment of a moral "mission to the Gentiles." Early in the century, in America, the Irish Catholics and the Jews established—within a year of each other—their American Irish Historical Society and American Jewish Historical Society, respectively. Each has put out its own quarterly for generations. The Irish, under the urgings of their subcultural statusseeking, as they rummaged about among the old lists and deeds of heroes, early took to ignoring the difference between Scotch Irish and Irish Irish. Thus they could even claim Woodrow Wilson for their team. There is no end to stuffing these quarterlies with dreary proofs that the Irish poured all that tea into Boston harbor or that Columbus and Lincoln were Jews. Arthur Cohen has recently written a book called The Myth of the Judeo-Christian Tradition (r969), but this, apparently, is a myth with so many pressing functions to perform that he is finding it virtually undebunkable.

It is hard for the "assaulted" intellectual in the countries of delayed industrialization—or for his counterparts in the advanced world—to take up a stable attitude vis-a-vis the West. Partly Westernized himself, he is deeply ambivalent, wavering between odi and amo, xenophobia and xenophilia. Appalled, frequently, by the discrepancies between the standard of living of his own culture and that of modern Western nations, he may, like Sun Yat-sen, a trained physician, deplore "such Chinese habits as spitting, letting gas loudly, and never brushing the teeth, as `uncultured.' " 29 He is not altogether sure just what he thinks of that curious "process" Norbert Elias calls "civilization" or of the disturbing entanglement that he senses may obtain between the civilizational process and the modernization process.


Eileen said...

"The Irish, under the urgings of their subcultural statusseeking, as they rummaged about among the old lists and deeds of heroes, early took to ignoring the difference between Scotch Irish and Irish Irish."

Yeah -- speaking as a person of Irish descent, I hate that. In the last election, lots o' folks tried to claim McCain as Irish even though he is Scots Irish (not Irish Irish). Collective, willful ignorance. I hate that!

patrick said...

McCain IS Scots-Irish, but judging from his surname he has Celtic rather than Anglo-Norman roots.
His ancestors were probably Galwegians (Gaelic-speakers from the far southwest of Scotland) or Ulster Irish who converted to Protestantism when the English took over.

Anonymous said...

Isn't McCain in actuality mostly English?

patrick said...

He is of British Isles descent; don't know how much is English, Scottish or Irish.
The Scots were also "latecomers to modernity"- especially the Highlanders (the last tribal Iron Age society of Western Europe). Lowland Scots (not so much Highlanders) played a huge role as inventors, scientists and philosophers in 18th and 19th century Britain. Jews did likewise between 1850 and WW2 in Germany and the Habsburg realms (e.g. Einstein, von Neumann, Haber, Pauli, Born etc.)

Anonymous said...

Sociology is such a pseudoscience.

Anonymous said...

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on Protestants

After posting about the Roger Ebert article about religion, guest-blogger Jesse Galef reminded me of an old video with Ebert and the late Gene Siskel that turned up on YouTube a few years ago.

In it, Siskel (a Jew) and Ebert (raised Catholic) joke around (with blunt and NSFW language) about Protestants and president at the time, Ronald Reagan. Siskel says Protestants run the country and their ought to be a rebellion. Only half-jokingly, it seems.

Anonymous said...

Ebert is German Catholic (not Irish).

Anonymous said...

the story of the Irish famine of the 184os which killed a million Irish and drove them into the rapidly modernizing world of Anglo-American Protestantism is a case study in the phenomenon of "delayed modernization."

Not sure exactly what you mean by that. But if you mean it happened because the Irish were slow to modernize, you're incorrect. Like virtually evey famine in human history, this one was caused by humans, in this case the British.

Anonymous said...

"The Irish, under the urgings of their subcultural statusseeking, as they rummaged about among the old lists and deeds of heroes, early took to ignoring the difference between Scotch Irish and Irish Irish."

It's a somewhat narrow distinction, as the Scots themselves are largely of Irish descent.

Anonymous said...

That's an interesting essay, thanks.

patrick said...

Ireland was held back by 2 factors: 1) its remoteness, which preserved a pastoral, tribal Celtic society free of the urbanization and centralization occurring in Britain and the Continent, and 2) post-Elizabethan British exploitation and minority rule (which culminated in the Famine).

Anonymous said...

Like virtually evey famine in human history, this one was caused by humans, in this case the British.

The potato blight was an ecological disaster. Just because Tony Blair issued a politically motivated apology does not mean the British caused the famine. Even had the government's response been more interventionist there is no reason to believe, as historian Mary Daly has shown, fewer people would've died.

The famine as holocaust is Irish Nationalist and Marxist propaganda.

patrick said...

The British did not cause the famine of course, it was an ecological disaster. But most historians agree that their response or lack thereof exacerbated the famine. (for instance, food exports from Ireland to Great Britain may have actually increased during the famine, and the British government refused direct assistance until after the famine had already peaked.)

Anonymous said...

The Scots are divided east and west. Lothian, the home of the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, was settled by English tribes. Lothian is also, disproportionately, the centre of the Scottish renaissance.

The variance between the two peoples, those of Gaelic Irish (Celts are not a race of people) and the English, is seen in today in differing morbidity and mortality rates in the west of Scotland.

One other factor held back the Gaelic Irish, a low mean IQ in comparison to the English. A disproportionate number of the great Irish literary works (Yeats) are attributable to the Anglo-Irish.

The post-Elizabethan English largely exploited the Hiberno-Norman establishment that invaded Ireland after the Norman invasion of England. It was done with the consent of a papal bull and at the behest of a dethroned Irish lord.

Anonymous said...


At the beginning of the famine the British government did provide cheap food to Ireland after buying it on the world market. This may have helped many of the starving in the short term but in the long term it hurt because the declining cost of food in Ireland hurt Irish merchants who thereafter imported less food making the famine worse later on. Had those importers known right away that the Peel government was secretly sending cheap food to Ireland the merchants would've ceased all imports leaving the government as the sole supplier of food to Ireland. You can blame the government intervention for making things worse though that is the opposite of the standard Nationalist/Marxist "the famine was genocide" argument.

It's also important to keep in mind that the British government did not control the food in Ireland. It was being sold by Irishmen (not just Anglo-Irish Protestants but Catholics too) to non-Irish as that's how they made a living. Unfortunately the Anglo-Irish landlords in Ireland were far less likely to provide poor relief than were Scottish landlords during their potato blight.

patrick said...

As for Scotland, it is divided East and West. The Highland Line runs roughly from southwest to northeast. The southeast of Scotland was settled by Angles in the Dark Ages. Flemish and Anglo-Norman settlers were brought in by the Scottish monarchy to populate the towns that they established in southern and eastern Scotland through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. At the same time, the north and west (Galloway, the Highlands, and the Hebrides) remained Gaelic-speaking.
While Edinburgh (in Lothian) was the intellectual and political center of Scotland, Glasgow in the southwest became an industrial center in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Thus, Glasgow was where Gaels from Ireland and the Highlands settled in the aftermath of the Famine and the Highland Clearances.