In response to:
Edge People from the March 25, 2010 issue
To the Editors:
There are edges and there are edges. For generations if not centuries, millions of cultural outsiders have stood at the edge, only they have stood there not by choice but by virtue of history’s consignment of them to the margin: a matter in which they’ve had no say. To stand there because you wish to stand there is a position that can be held only by those who are free to occupy the center; a point that Tony Judt himself acknowledges when late in his piece [“Edge People,” NYR, March 25] he says,
To be sure, there is something self- indulgent in the assertion that one [lives by choice] at the edge…. Such a claim is only open to a certain kind of person exercising very particular privileges.
Judt and I are more or less of an age; and, I, like he, grew up a secular Jew in an English-speaking capital city (in my case, New York). When I was a child, the people around me called themselves American Jews; when I was in college we called ourselves Jewish-Americans; my nieces, now grown women, are simply Americans. At no time were any of us either Jewish nationalists or flag-waving patriots; by the same token, at no time did any of us feel we had a choice in the matter of social self-description. It was only after assimilation had been completed that one could lay claim to the privilege of living free of some version of the hyphenated identity. That lack of freedom caused many in the generation before mine to live with murder in their hearts or, equally deforming, a silent weariness of the soul.
I hold no brief for the identity politics of which Judt is contemptuous, and I think much of the criticism it comes in for is well deserved—it nourishes an insularity that is oppressive indeed—but that criticism, it seems to me, should be tempered with sympathy for the reason it exists. Typically, the road to assimilation has been walked in the morbid silence imposed by social invisibility. Identity politics has broken the silence. Like it or not—loud, brash, even ignorant and threatening as it may sometimes seem—it is an expressive demand that you who have never been there, listen to what it has felt like to live, trapped in political time, at the periphery.
The boast that choosing to live at the edge means occupying a superior position cannot but leave readers like me with the taste of ashes in their mouths.
New York City
Tony Judt replies:
I cannot speak for Ms. Gornick, growing up in New York, but I can assure her that in postwar London “social self-description” was always a matter of choice. To be sure, identifying oneself as “Jewish” goes well beyond issues of elective affinity—but then I don’t see how the “completion” of assimilation resolves the matter one way or another: I have more to say about this in my memoir “Toni,” which appears on page 21 of this issue.