Kevin MacDonald has been described as the “Marx of the Anti-Semites.” Google around the slimier regions of the web and you’ll see that his trilogy of books on Jews—A People that Shall Dwell Alone, Assimilation and its Discontents, and Culture of Critique—is celebrated in the nastiest Jew-hating environs on the net. And MacDonald himself is a hardcore American nativist in the Charles Lindbergh mold.
None of which necessarily means that MacDonald’s academic arguments are wrong. He’s a tenured professor of psychology, his theories have received some support from well-respected colleagues, and there’s no getting around the fact that his Jewish trilogy is as fascinating as it is alarming, a sui generis look at Jewish history and psychology with the help of modern evolutionary theory.
In this week’s Big Question, National Review columnist John Derbyshire and Jewcy’s own Joey Kurtzman mix it up over the question “Is Kevin MacDonald right about the Jews?”
Joey and Derbyshire take the query and launch into a whole host of questions related to Jews and race in America: can a gentile journalist criticize Jews without being “smashed to pieces”? Would Jews benefit from more WASP criticism of Jewish culture? Are politically correct liberals in fact hopelessly racist? And so on.
But all the time, the question lingers: might Kevin MacDonald be right about the Jews?
From: Joey Kurtzman To: John Derbyshire Subject: Is Kevin MacDonald right about the Jews?
All right, so why don’t I start this off by giving a quick synopsis of Kevin MacDonald’s work?
The man’s a professor of psychology at Cal State Long Beach who used to study wolves, and then one day switched to Jews. For reasons inexplicable to me, his work on wolves attracted rather less attention than his work on Jews.
MacDonald is an advocate of "evolutionary psychology," a rapidly growing field which seeks to explain the human mind and human behavior by examining them through the lens of evolutionary theory. He promotes the controversial idea that evolutionary competition takes place not just between individuals or genes, but also between human groups. He’s studied the Amish, the Roma, the Overseas Chinese, and other groups from an evolutionary perspective. But his primary focus has been on Jews.
I would boil down his theses to these two: In the course of Jewish history, Jews have developed
predispositions to high intelligence, verbal intensity, altruism to kin, and a suite of other traits; and these traits further a “group evolutionary strategy” by which the Jewish population competes with non-Jewish populations.
To see some examples of how MacDonald’s theories have been treated in popular media, have a look at Judith Shulevitz’s “Evolutionary Psychology’s Anti-Semite” in Slate, and Mr. Derbyshire’s “The Marx of the Anti-Semites” in The American Conservative.
Okay, onto the meat.
True story: a Jewess of my acquaintance, who happens to be a veteran of several mainstream Jewish organizations, tells of stumbling upon MacDonald’s essay “Understanding Jewish Influence.” As she read about the gobsmacking ability of Jews to obtain power and influence in Western societies, about our eminence in academia and law, about how our high intelligence and organizational skill are key to our ability to achieve such prominence, my friend’s chest swelled with ethno-religious pride and she forwarded the essay on to a former colleague of hers, also a functionary in a Jewish organization. The friend replied: “The article was written by a non-Jew! And an antisemite no less! Don’t forward it to anyone else!”
It’s a tiresome old story. Self-celebratory, triumphalist Jewish historiography looks a heck of a lot like much of the stuff we dismiss as “antisemitism.” Had Kevin MacDonald proposed the same thesis about a Jewish “group evolutionary strategy” but been careful to pleasure us Jews with the sort of masturbatory interpretation we like—you know how it goes, something along the lines of “look at everything those Jews have given us with this strategy of theirs, all the wonderful scholarship and Nobel Prizes and scientific advances and cutting-edge social science!”—you can be sure his work would have met a rather different reaction. A reaction more like that received by the recent University of Utah study that argued that the Ashkenazi Jewish population has acquired genetic traits that confer high intelligence.
Sure, some of us were made a bit nervous to hear “Jewish genetics” discussed, but we were titillated and flattered by the study’s argument, too. When the New York Times wrote about the study we forwarded it around, helping make it the Times’ “most e-mailed story,” and instead of denouncing it as horrendous and antisemitic, I’d say most of us look forward to learning whether its thesis stands up to future study.
Which, really, is the only reasonable reaction to MacDonald’s work. In his preface to Culture of Critique, MacDonald says, “For me the only issue is whether I have been honest in my treatment of sources and whether my conclusions meet the usual standards of scholarly research in the social sciences.”
I don’t think it would be a courtesy too far if we were to evaluate MacDonald’s work based on those very criteria. Jewish academics have advanced their fair share of controversial theories and were within their rights to ask that those theories be evaluated based on their scholarly (rather than aesthetic) merit.
Whether we dislike MacDonald’s arguments or not, whether we find them gratifying or insulting, all that matters is whether his premises and models are valid, and whether the insights they produce stand up to further research. If a critic wants to wade into the debate over whether “group selection theory” is a useful scientific model, fair enough. If someone wants to argue that the Ashkenazi experience in Europe did not last long enough for selective evolutionary pressures to work their genetic magic, go to it. But accusations of antisemitism are irrelevant to all of these issues, and they serve only to prevent a rigorous examination of MacDonald’s work.
In Slate, Judith Shulevitz pleaded with John Tooby—the director of UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and at that time the president of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society—to produce an academic rebuttal of MacDonald’s arguments. He assured her that he would soon do so. He never did.
So is Kevin MacDonald right about the Jews? I don’t know. For now, that seems to me the only answer.
So I’ve got to ask…when you reviewed MacDonald’s work in The American Conservative, why did you play all the same games as Shulevitz? Before you even got down to examining MacDonald’s work you had already tainted him as “The Marx of the Anti-Semites” who had “the Jew thing.”
Come on, now. Were you afraid of offending Jews if you gave MacDonald a fair hearing, without prefacing your review with the equivalent of a flashing red neon light announcing “SUBJECT OF REVIEW IS AN ANTISEMITE! DISREGARD! DISREGARD!” Or was it Pat Buchanan or Scott McConnell who was afraid of getting pilloried by angry Jews? Whose sack was missing?
Over to you.