WASP Guilt

In this silly review of George Gilder’s The Israel Test, Scott McConnell takes Gilder’s explicit arguments to be symptomatic of deeper psychological scars. He suggests that an embarrassing moment during Gilder’s adolescence explains why Gilder would be politically supportive of Israel. Indeed, for McConnell it explains why any WASP would be pro-Israel:

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.

What Gilder had said to the girl was a reply to her question about how he liked studying at Exeter. “Echoing sentiments I had heard both at home and at school,” Gilder recalls, “I responded, ‘Exeter’s fine, except that there are too many New York Jews.’” Gilder briefly describes how his embarrassment taught him something about resentment and social grace:

Rather than recognizing my shortcomings and inferiority and resolving to overcome them in the future, I had blamed the people who had outperformed me. I had let envy rush in and usurp understanding and admiration. I had succumbed to the lamest of all the world’s excuses for failure — blame the victor. I would pay by losing the respect of this woman I then cared about more than any other.

Instead of leaving it at this commonplace but worthwhile moral lesson, McConnell thinks the “New York Jew” episode overshadows and “animates” the entire argument of Gilder’s book. According to Gilder, it spurred him to be more open-minded. But McConnell thinks the “incident” filled Gilder with such overwhelming guilt that he became a self-hating shill for the Israel lobby. And that some similar social faux pas probably explains the Bush Doctrine and the invasion of Iraq. Who is it, again, who regards these events as “essentially trivial”?

This seems deeply weird, but it’s not hard to play armchair psychologist with McConnell, too. It is obvious to him why Jews would like Israel, but WASPs? What on earth could possibly lead a self-respecting white Anglo-Saxon Protestant to admire a Jewish state when, in McConnell’s view, ethnonationalism would command otherwise? So McConnell invents a sort of false consciousness, a “WASP guilt,” to explain it. It’s a mean-spirited slur, of course. Critics of Israel have long alleged that Israel’s supporters seek to silence debate by leveling overblown accusations of anti-Semitism at them, but McConnell now insists that non-Jewish supporters of Israel must be self-hating Uncle Toms. “This sequence might be amusing if the real-life consequences were less sinister,” as McConnell puts it. But apart from that, one wonders what seething resentments lurk behind McConnell’s strange worldview. What traumatic event in the boyhood days of Scott McConnell can explain it?