It’s okay to be a Dead White Male if you’re Friedrich Nietzsche

I’ve been reading Leo Strauss lately (on assignment) and thinking about points where the right and the left coincide. Left and right, you ask ? What am I talking about? As Richard Wright said: “It’s not left and right anymore. It’s black and white!” Yeah, okay, but then there’s that piece in this Sunday’s NYT in which several prominent lefties lament the recent postcolonial fuzzification of the canon and what it’s done to academic humanities. By focusing on the new we lose the past! By focusing on critical thinking we put the humanities at the service of the sciences! These are the things that happen, they say, when we give up a canon. It was right to do it, but the cost is great.

Peace. Being in Jewish Studies I haven’t had much choice but to teach DWMs, since prominent Jewish writers are mostly male (not quite all), mostly dead (just about all), and mostly white (uh, really, all, cause even the Arab Jews get classed that way, protests notwithstanding). I also teach DWMs such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Nietzsche, because they’re coming from perspectives so far from those of my students that they might as well be of another race, if not from another planet. But the point about giving up the canon is that it leaves us in a situation of turmoil and ferment, and what could be more exciting than that? This is not, for humanities in academe, one of the happy pages in history, and it certainly isn’t blank. Exciting times for all! Let us fight the good fight, on whichever side we choose!

One objection raised in the NYT article suggests that getting rid of the canon is linked to multicultural agendas that allow students to engage in me-studies: Jews can major in Jewish studies, queers in queer studies etc. This does seem like a real problem to me, and I’m proud to say that my Jewish colleagues and I, considering a Jewish Studies major at Pomona, leaped at the chance, offered us by a Muslim colleague, to make it a Jewish and Islamic Studies major, in which Islam could be de-exoticized through a comparison with Judaism, Judaism re-exoticized through a comparison with Islam, and reductivism combated on every level. This wouldn’t have happened in an earlier more canonical decade, when everyone in Religious Studies would have been studying the core texts of Christianity. To be sure, some of the Christian texts are some of the best texts going, and I’m not going to stop teaching them in other courses. But the choice isn’t between these wonderful texts and the wonderful texts of Judaism or Islam read as me-studies. There are other ways of perceiving the situation.

Back to the left, the right, and my current concern with Strauss. I agree with very little of what Bloom says in The Closing of the American Mind, but, hey, how about this for a war cry we can all follow into battle, left or black, white or right? From the NYT piece:

Bloom believed education should be transformative — that it should remove students from the confines of their own backgrounds to engage with books that open up new realms of meaning. “He told students that they had come to the university to learn something, and this meant that they must rid themselves of the opinions of their parents,” Bellow wrote of Ravelstein/Bloom in his novel…. In The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom himself wrote that a liberal education should provide a student with “four years of freedom” — “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Whether students today see college as a time of freedom or a compulsory phase of credentialing is an open question. From Bloom’s perspective, “the importance of these years for an American cannot be overestimated. They are civilization’s only chance to get to him.”

It reminds me of what my Marxist mentor at the UofT once told me: that he could talk to the Straussians more easily than most of his colleagues because, though he agreed with them on nothing, at least they were both asking the question: what is the good life? And they both knew it wasn’t the status quo.


7 thoughts on “It’s okay to be a Dead White Male if you’re Friedrich Nietzsche

  1. “..cause even the Arab Jews get classed that way…”

    Oh you so knew I was going to weigh in on this. Explain-y? What do you mean classed that way, and by whom?

  2. Well sure I knew. Hoped anyway. You know I learned this mostly from you.

    A black Jew or an Asian Jew? That’s a curiosity. Might be a convert or perhaps a member of a small sect with an odd history. But an Arab Jew? That’s just impossible; it’s a violation of natural law. Ashkenazi (=predominant) Jews hide from the existence of non-white Jewishness, and since they set the agenda for the way Jews are understood in the culture at large, Jews are understood as exclusively white–and,as a matter of fact, as white males with large brains and crummy bodies. Which means that even an Arab Jew, writing as a Jew, is read as white. As long as she’s not specifically in your face about her colour, she’s white–and, in a sense, she’s also male.

  3. And don’t forget that the US government demographic templates classify any Semite as white (which Hayden White considers an act of illicit and intentional cultural appropriation — different from the DWMification of Augustine but related).

  4. Didn’t know this about the US government; how very kind of them to reach out like that. But speaking of the DWMification of Augustine, how about the DWMification of Jesus?

  5. Ohhhh I see. I guess I’m getting stuck on the “read” part of the “read” as white. You’re referring to the categorical erasure of non-whiteness within and by Jewishness. I was reading “read as white” more broadly as in “read physically.” The problem for the non-whiteness of semites is the hegemony of the black-white binary, you know? Where do you put the sort of frizzy hair, the olive skin, that terrible lisp (just kidding).

    For me this white/non-white division is much clearer in the States than at home, you know (what is this, #12 for Canada?). Here in the States wherever I go people always think that I work there. One time I was standing in Zuni’s (local SF fave) on a Friday night wearing a 1500 suit (from Holt’s) and holding a huuuge martini and this guy walked by me and said, “Thank you very much, we had a wonderful time!” An ex of mine routinely had keys handed to him outside of restaurants.

    ahahahahaha! that cracks me up. THEN who gets blamed for car theft?


    Yeah don’t you hate, but also sneakily love, talking to the right. Should the four years of undergraduate education be a big oedipal fuck-fest? Absolutely! But three years after that aren’t we producing the parents again? 8 out of 10 times, I’ll bet you we are. On Bloom’s plan, nine times out of ten.

    And transformation? I just so often feel that my students come into my classes with their minds made up; the particular transference of Feminist Studies is that you must always let them down. I imagine feminist pedagogy as something that takes place long after they write their evaluations; it happens after their first job, their first child, their first wrinkle. And then they go — oh, that’s what they meant.


    If every Jewish woman in the world could ACTUALLY be a white Jewish male for a day, do you think they would immediately go sleep with a shiksa now-Jewish woman?


    Bit of a ramble, sorry. As Steve Martin says: Rammmmmmm/Blinggggggg….

    It’s the vicodin.

  6. Jesus is already the Big Kahuna locus classicus of appropriation of otherness, surely. Nonethless, if you look at the iconography of the two across time, Jesus is allowed to look different by everyone (remember all the stuff in the late 60s about Jesus as a long-haired hippie freak?), but poor Augie never is.

  7. Meg, so right. Jesus never avoided that all-things-to-all-men Pauline thing. Augie’s a different case, and if you were taking me to task for including him in the DWM list, point to you.

    Kyla, I have a ton to say but won’t. You should be blogging darling, and about something other than figs! Yes, you sniffed me out: I sneakily love talking to the right. I’d normally say it’s about intellectual generosity, and also about pragmatics (I have no desire to turn down anyone’s money), and then I might go all Jewish and say it’s never a bad thing to have friends on all sides considering what can happen in this crazy and murderous world. But none of this is the real reason, which is simply that I’m nothing if not a rebel, and I can’t stand to be pigeonholed as a member of a group. It makes me laugh to play all sides and challenge everyone, and I live for what makes me laugh.

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