Monday, September 25, 2006

Movers and Shakers

My dorm room at Carleton College is quite excellent. It is a massive quint at the top (4th) floor of the nicest dorm on campus. The 4th floor has only two rooms on it (our, and a quad), and the dorm itself is one of the more (psychologically if not spaitially) isolated on the campus.

Among my roommates, our room includes the head of the Sci-Fi Alliance at Carleton, the Guildmaster of the Assassins' Guild on campus (which is huge here), and myself, the President of the Debate Team. In other words, we are geek kingpins, and there is alot of nerd power concentrated in our litte tower.

I am the only Jew of my roommates, and despite leading the debate team I am the only Jew who is a member of the program there is well. All of this is to segue into a devastating review of a book that appears to be quite interested in resurrecting the myth of the Jewish conspiracy. It tells the tale of Sidney Korshak, a fixer for the mob and general shady behind-the-scenes powerbroker. Who, I guess it bears mentioning, is Jewish. It's worth mentioning because the author uses Mr. Korshak's story as a jump-off for discussing how the Jewish community writ large has a propensity for being part of these shadowy organizations--the hand behind the scenes that got things done for the public face.
How much of this is fact and how much legend is for the reader to decide. There is a lot of gossip here, guilt by association, innuendo - Russo quotes an actress named Selene Walters who says she was raped by Reagan in 1952, two weeks before he married Nancy Davis - but Korshak was clearly an influential figure. The system needed him, so he appeared. The problem is with the broader context Russo paints, in which Korshak and a handful of men with Jewish-sounding names are seen less as freely acting individuals than as cogs in a secret machine. Again and again, Russo strikes the sort of taboo-breaking pose that makes me nervous, the way any sentence that follows the phrase "Let's be honest" makes me nervous. Whenever I started to get caught up in the story, I ran into sentences like this: "Throughout history, the Jews were never the public leaders; they were always the kingmakers and the power brokers. ... They worked surreptitiously, choosing to focus on the substrata of a business or event." Or: "The Jews' historical Diaspora (dispersion) and relative lack of national roots helped them to identify and exploit more quickly the most lucrative emerging markets."
I'm not saying Korshak was not powerful, was not connected, did not know how to get a project moving or shut down. He was and did all these things, and that's what makes his story so interesting. It just seems to me - sensitive Ashkenazi that I am - that in making his case Russo deploys some very old notions of Jewish double-dealing and conspiracy, without which his larger ideas about Korshak and the world would fall apart. The fact is, every immigrant community in this country has spawned an underworld and every underworld has needed guys like Korshak. This does not make him a typically Jewish figure. It makes him a typically American figure. Or as Bellow's Augie March proclaims, "I am an American, Chicago born."

It reminds me of the routine in which Dave Chappelle talks about first learning of the stereotype about blacks and fried chicken. "All these years, I thought I liked chicken because it was delicious," Chappelle says. "Turns out I am genetically predisposed to liking chicken. I got no say in the matter." Well, I felt the same way when I finished "Supermob": I thought Sidney Korshak became a powerful figure because he was crooked and ambitious and smart. Turns out he was just Jewish.

I feel the same way. I have amassed my fair share of power here at Carleton (and before I go on, I want to stress that I feel very comfortable as a Jew on this campus for the most part, and do not feel like people think of me as the power-hungry Jew), most of it without being the explicit front-figure. For example, though I'm not technically a member of the college Democrats, I know virtually everyone who is, and I write for the flagship liberal paper on campus. Even in debate, my treasurer is the public face of debate for most of the dealings with the college. Shady Jew? Fits the framework, maybe. But I'm honestly not interested in taking over any worlds. More importantly, the same relational structure could apply to many of my roommates (who also have power in a variety of indirect ways), but since they're not Jewish, they'd never get tagged with the model.

There are good Jews and there are bad Jews. There is not an over-arching Jewish conspiracy or psyche that channels these Jews into positions of power and influence. The myth has gone on long enough.

1 comment:

Techgurl said...

I knew Sidney Korshak and my grandfather was his law partner. It was true that he was a very powerful man.

I have read Mr Russo's book also, and having grown up with Mr Korshak and his brother Marshall in Chicago, I can say even though they represented criminals they were pretty honest men.

Sure they took advantage of some good business deals by investing in some of the company's they represented but hey thats capitalism.

Sydney was able to keep his mouth shut and use his connections with organized crime to settle labor problem which made everyone happy.

Except maybe Marge Everett.

Take care and be proud of your heritage