Discover more from Gideon's Substack
Does the Reason for Jewish Achievement Matter?
I'm afraid I'm going there
The Jewish Century by Yuri Slezkine. A weird and worthwhile book!
I see that Andrew Sullivan has once again gotten himself into hot water over race and intelligence, and that once again his detractors can’t seem to discern that one person’s hot water is another person’s jacuzzi. I dearly wish most people saw the matter neither way, and I hope this post is taken in that spirit. Which is to say: I hope I don’t regret writing it.
The thing about the influence of genes on various aspects of aptitude and personality is that it’s incredibly complicated, and the thing about facile “just so” explanations of how genes have shaped human history and the structure of contemporary society is that they . . . aren’t. Indeed, they are intended to be simple and to conform to common sense, which is frequently indistinguishable from prejudice. But something analogous can be said of sweeping denials of meaningful genetic differences between either individuals or populations, except that instead of facilely confirming frequently-prejudicial common sense, they facilely deny it in the service of ideology. Neither attitude can be described as science, and science ought to be the subject. I said most of what I have to say about this back when I reviewed Nicholas Wade’s book, A Troublesome Inheritance:
It’s a general weakness of Wade’s book: he prefers broad, sweeping speculation about the course of history to the careful building of a case from blocks of evidence. In this way, A Troublesome Inheritance ironically resembles one of its intended targets, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, which similarly extended discrete insights deserving of further investigation—like the importance of domesticable animals to the development of civilization—far beyond what they could plausibly explain.
This is a problem not only for how convincing Wade’s historical speculations are but for the case he makes that there are no moral or political implications of the science he is popularizing. If, as Wade appears to believe, the West is distinctly more creative than other civilizations and has that character because of genetically-based behavioral differences, that surely has implications for the moral validity of race-based conceptions of nationality. If, as Wade appears to believe, that character is due to what amounts to Social Darwinist dynamics in the Middle Ages, that surely has implications for the legitimacy of eugenic arguments today. Our moral commitments are rarely if ever entirely divorced from their practical consequences. . . .
It’s a shame that Wade spent so much of his book on theories of history when there are so many other areas where the science he touts could be of practical benefit. Medicine will be improved if we study the differential progress of disease and the effects of therapies on different populations. Psychology will be improved if we don’t assume that everyone on earth cognitively resembles American college students. Education will be improved if we study the distribution of learning styles in different populations and develop practical pedagogical adaptations.
This moment in the human sciences is exciting not because it promises yet another theory of everything to explain the world as it is but because of the myriad small advances in understanding that will help us individually adapt to our environment, and adapt our environment to us, to further human flourishing.
My attitude toward these questions hasn’t really changed since then.
So why did I decide to write this post? Because there’s something that I think needs to be said about the specific area that Sullivan was engaged in: speculation about the reason for extraordinary Jewish success since the era of emancipation in Europe in the 19th century.
This is a subject that makes a lot of Jewish people uncomfortable, even as (in other contexts) it makes them quite proud. And I completely understand that. Anybody who conspicuously “notices” the large Jewish overrepresentation among Nobel prizewinners (or among the ultra-wealthy, or in the U.S. Senate or the Supreme Court) who isn’t a fellow member-of-the-tribe doing some kvelling is presumed to be up to no good. But the extraordinary nature of that success should not be minimized; it’s obvious to anyone who knows the numbers and can do the math. I distinctly remember mentioning once in passing to an Irish colleague, apropos of I can’t remember what topic we were discussing, that there were only about 15 million Jews in the world. He was thunderstruck for a moment, then replied, “Jesus. You guys really punch above your weight.” It really is notable, and things that are notable get noticed. The question then is what you do next.
Sullivan deployed that notable fact in a very familiar way: as grist for the “heredity matters” mill. Look how many Nobel prizes were won by Ashkenazi Jews! How can that not be at least partly the result of genetic differences? Then a variety of critics piled on, appalled, calling any such suggestion obviously racist, pointing to possible cultural explanations for Jewish achievement as proof that only a racist would turn to genes as an explanation, etc. It’s all very familiar and, to me, rather dispiriting.
I know why his critics don’t trust Sullivan on this subject, and I’m not arguing here to defend him on that score, both because I’m not interested in doing that and because he doesn’t need me to defend him. Rather, what I want to highlight is that the alternative explanations often proffered for Jewish success pose just as many potential problems from an anti-racist perspective as the hereditarian explanation. Indeed, I’m not sure that there is an explanation for significant disparities between groups that couldn’t be deployed in ways that self-styled anti-racists would find appalling. That suggests that the hunt for explanations of reality that are ideologically pure is a fool’s errand, which I believe it is. Allow me to explain.
The usual alternatives posited to explain extraordinary Jewish success are some combination of cultural ones (the valorization of education is frequently cited as a reason for Jewish academic achievement, which, in our meritocratic society, feeds into success in many other areas of life) and pure historical contingency (Jewish dominance of Hollywood, for example, can be explained largely through founder effects: Hollywood was founded by Jewish people, and got way bigger than anyone could have dreamt it would at the time). These are fine arguments—I think pure historical contingency, in particular, deserves more attention from people looking for “just so” explanations of social phenomena—marshaled by people horrified by the suggestion of racial hierarchy implied by Sullivan’s stance, and they probably think of them as anti-racist arguments.
Consider, though, how analogous arguments would play out in the same spaces if we changed what group we’re talking about. Suppose someone said that disproportionate Black representation in American prisons was largely due to cultural differences (a “culture of poverty,” say). Or suppose someone said that the dispossession of the indigenous peoples of North America was largely due to pure historical contingency (differential vulnerability to disease, say). These would obviously not be seen as anti-racist arguments. On the contrary, they would be seen as profoundly racist arguments—ways of dismissing racial bias in policing and criminal justice as well as the role systemic racism plays in the complexion of poverty in America, ways of ignoring the role of broken treaties and genocidal violence in the settlement of the American continent.
What’s the difference? I think the key difference is that Jewish success isn’t, for the people I’m talking about, generally considered a political and social problem in the way that mass-incarceration of Black people or the dispossession of indigenous people is. But that’s not a given. There are plenty of people (perhaps a growing number) who do see Jewish over-representation as a problem, and that perception, when it achieves critical mass, has proved unfathomably disastrous for Jewish people over and over again in history. For those for whom it is a problem, though, these kinds of arguments—which boil down to saying that Jews earned their success, and therefore deserve it—will not only not be persuasive, but could well further inflame their anger, much as justificatory explanations for mass-incarceration only inflame it.
I think it’s a category mistake to treat explanations for phenomena as racist. To that degree, I agree with Wade, I guess, and with Sullivan. What’s racist—or what can be racist—is how those explanations are deployed. It’s obvious that a lot of those who are drawn to these kinds of explanations are drawn to them precisely because they can be deployed in a racist manner, and a lot of others simply aren’t very careful about that question. But that’s where the push back needs to be. Explanations are, ultimately, neither racist nor anti-racist but well-evidenced and plausible or poorly-evidenced and implausible. And in many cases—and here’s my point—the same kinds of explanations can be deployed in either a racist or anti-racist manner.
For example, “culture of poverty” arguments can be—and historically have been—deployed to justify mass incarceration, to convince White people that such a situation is just and therefore not a reason for concern. That’s the reason why self-identified anti-racists like Ibram X. Kendi now lump them in with biological explanations for criminality as obviously anathema. But that’s not the only way they could be deployed. Among the ways cultures manifest themselves in individuals is as cognitive patterns. If there are common cognitive patterns among criminals that can reasonably be traced to growing up in impoverished, high-crime circumstances—that are, in fact, adaptive in that environment, but that are maladaptive to escaping that environment (something Ta-Nehisi Coates has talked about movingly with reference to his own life story)—then therapeutic approaches aimed at changing those cognitive patterns would be well-advised to be informed by those patterns’ origins. That would be deploying a cultural explanation for criminality to reduce criminal activity, reduce incarceration, and, not incidentally, reduce racial and cultural disparities therein, rather than to justify any of same. But it could only be deployed if first it could be investigated and developed.
A narrative of historical contingency, meanwhile, could be of benefit to indigenous people seeking to recover their ancestral traditions, precisely because it puts the blame for loss on a factor—disease—that does not implicate those traditions at all, and therefore might leave ample room for the argument that those traditions are perfectly well-suited to building a thriving and competitive civilization capable of standing up to settler society. By contrast, a narrative of defeat and grievance might not leave as much space for that recovery, precisely because it gives so much narrative power to the oppressor. This is something I think about a lot as a Jewish person living in the shadow of the Holocaust, struggling against a Judaism of spite defined by grievance and the memory of past suffering, and a Zionism that, historically, often sought to erase that painful history rather than find living roots in it from which to grow.
Biological explanations can even be deployed in a similar manner. If lead poisoning, for example, is a significant factor in everything from crime to poverty to poor performance in school, as it strongly appears to be, then there’s a ready-to-hand meliorative remedy that can facilitate progress. Any ideology that takes seriously equality of moral concern—which is the kind of equality that really matters—would want to grab such a remedy with both hands, rather than reject it because biological explanations for behavior are, per se, racist.
So what about those fears of antisemitism? It’s a tough problem, and I can’t pretend to know the solution. I really don’t think it’s plausible to combat antisemitism by saying it’s racist to notice Jewish success. People will notice patterns. Telling them not to notice them because it’s racist to do so is not going to make them not notice them; it’s just going to discredit anti-racism. I also don’t think it’s plausible to combat antisemitism by saying that Jewish success is fair and just and anyone with questions is an antisemite, and leaving it at that. Telling people something is fair and just when it doesn't feel that way to them isn’t going to convince; it’s just going to discredit your idea of justice. But it should be obvious, I hope, that this doesn’t mean we have to dignify the idea that Jewish success is proof of some kind of unfair advantage—indeed, that’s practically a textbook definition of antisemitism, precisely the thing we’re trying to combat.
I know this is going to sound lame, but I think it’s a far better bet to bring people together than to anathematize, build bridges of empathy to combat envy on the one hand, and to demonstrate genuine moral concern rather than disdain on the other. And that applies more generally. Is it a problem that Asian students make up 75% of the student body at some New York specialized high schools? Rather than either say, “yes—because that kind of disparity proves the system is racist” or “no—because saying there are too many Asian students is itself racist,” it makes a lot more sense to ask, “why do you think it’s a problem? What’s are you suffering from that you need alleviated, and why do you think this disparity is related to it?” Is the problem lack of adequate educational opportunities for students who don’t get into those schools (or who wouldn’t thrive there if they did get in)? Maybe it’s broader—a meritocratic overemphasis on educational credentials, or a winner-take-all economic system? Then proceed from there to reorient the conversation around solving the problem, treating both the underrepresented and aggrieved and the disproportionately represented Asian students—overwhelmingly immigrants and children of immigrants, a high proportion of them living in poverty—as objects of equal moral concern, and as participants in the process rather than obstacles to progress.
It doesn’t ultimately matter whether Ashkenazi Jewish success is partly due to some odd mutation in the 10th-century founding population that made us better (on average) at certain kinds of symbolic manipulations, or whether that explanation turns out to be false. If Jewish achievement is due to some kind of special cultural sauce that isn’t readily replicable, or if it’s due to pure historical contingency, that doesn’t actually change anything about the individual experience of fair or unfair treatment, or the justice or injustice of the distribution of power in our society, or our mutual responsibility as fellow Americans. What matters is whether all people feel themselves to be objects of equal moral concern, and equally valid participants in the process of self-government.