Blogs > Liberty and Power > Power of the Clan

Jan 10, 2009 1:02 pm

Power of the Clan

There is concern that the $50 billion Ponzi scheme perpetrated by financier Bernard Madoff and the media coverage of it may spur a new wave of American anti-Semitism. A pointed history lesson presented by syndicated columnist Amity Shlaes, author of The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression, should go far towards diminishing this apprehension Her essay tells the very similar story of white Anglo-Saxon Protestant Richard Whitney, president of the New York Stock Exchange during the 1930s, who ended up in Sing Sing Correctional Facility.

With regards to worry about Madoff and guilt by association, Shlaes states that her “advice is to have no such fear. The Madoff scandal is not about how different a Jewish clan is from a Protestant clan. It is about how the two are alike. And how Jewish and Protestant clannishness resembles that of Italian-Americans, Russian-Americans, Chinese-Americans and on down the line. Clannishness transcends any specific group. The clan can add value as a cultural or economic institution. It also harbors a unique power to destroy.”

Cross posted on The Trebach Report

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Keith Halderman - 1/10/2009

I did not say you were missing the main point I said not to forget it. She is not commenting on the reaction to the two stories rather she is commenting on the reality of the two stories which are very similar, so there should not be different reactions.

William J. Stepp - 1/10/2009

The head of the ADL was arguing this line a couple weeks ago, but he didn't invoke the Shylock stereotype, and it was a good thing he didn't do so.
When Shylock wanted to enforce his just claim of a pound of flesh, he was accused of wanting to kill Antonio, who had put up the collateral for Bassanio's loan.
Their agreement specified that no blood could be shed and that exactly one pound had to be taken in enforcing it, so he relented and reduced his claim.
If anything, Shylock was discriminated against, because he was forced to give up half his property and convert to Christianity.
Shylock was a money lender, not a thief or a Ponzi swindler, unlike Madoff, so I don't see why his name should be invoked in trying to draw a comparison to a $50 billion fraud.
It's an unfair rap on Shylock, who I played in a school production of "Merchant of Venice."

Steven Horwitz - 1/10/2009

Who's missing the main point? We all know the stereotype is unjustified, but Shlaes' comparison is just off-base.

Keith Halderman - 1/10/2009

I agree that the stereotype with Jews is stronger but let us not forget her main point that the stereotype is unjustified.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/10/2009

It seems to me that Steve is basically right about this. There are some stereotypes about Old Blood New Englanders that the Richard Whitney scandal could play into -- the sharp-dealing banker or money-manager, the Connecticut peddler who sold us wooden nutmegs -- but they don't run nearly so deep and, thus, hurtful as the stereotyping of Jews.

Steven Horwitz - 1/10/2009

I love Amity's book, but I think she's missed the point here. If WASPs were stereotyped as Shylocks, then the parallel would hold. The worry in the Jewish community is that Madoff's behavior seems to confirm the worst stereotypes of Jews, *even if who he harmed were mostly other Jews*. Whitney's behavior didn't confirm long-standing stereotypes about "his people" in the way that Madoff's will in the eyes of anti-Semites.

Of course, real anti-Semites should be cheering for Madoff's behavior, given what a blow it has been to a large number of high-profile Jewish charities and educational groups.