The First

Few things bore me more than reading about the “firsts.” No, not the first person to climb Mount Everest or the first person on the moon, but about the first black to… the first woman to… the first Jew to… the first disabled person to…the first homosexual to… etc.

It is worse than boring; it is demeaning. It is the outcome of a peculiarly liberal approach to humanity that defines people not as individuals, nor sees their accomplishments as those of unique individuals, but rather as an expression of whatever group to which they are supposed to belong. There are no “people” anymore; you are whatever bracket that you have been assigned. Your deeds are celebrated because of the classification that you are given in some cases from birth, in other cases acquired through life’s experiences.

To many liberal elitists today, your basic rights accrue to you because of the group to which you have been assigned, and some groups are entitled to special rights because of their group identity. It ensures that you will always be judged by your group label, which can never be shed or disregarded. It demands that you show solidarity to the group intellectually, politically, and materially. The NY Times always specializes in these types of calculations – counting up the number of blacks, women, etc. who are in public or corporate positions, belong to certain clubs, or have achieved positions of prominence in industry, politics or athletics.

Affirmative action is based on the notion that you are your group identity. A black teenager from a wealthy home or possessing superior athletic skills has advantages over the poor white teenager equally (or sometimes more) gifted scholastically but who cannot claim membership in one of the cherished groups. Graduate schools still apply these quotas that affect whites and Jews for sure, but Asians even more so.

The overt assumption is that any group that is not represented anywhere in rigid accordance with its proportion in the population is the subject of discrimination. Well, not every group. The dearth of Jews in professional sports in the New York area where American Jews disproportionately live has never been attributed to discrimination, although it should be, obviously. Talent is clearly not the issue. Certainly, Orthodox Jews – of whom there are none in professional sports – have the greatest claim to this type of discrimination. Is it bias, or is it an unwillingness to make reasonable accommodations to Orthodox Jews (like no games on Friday night or Shabbat)? I wonder…

There are two problems with “the first” syndrome. First, it precludes a fair evaluation of the individual as an individual. The “first homosexual” (open, they say) football player is a perfect example of this. Why he saw the need to share his bedroom practices with the world is one unanswerable question, but completely in line with today’s obsession with exhibitionism. But, essentially, he has asked to be assessed based on a behavioral pattern that he embraces that he shares with others. I never heard of him before this week, but prepare for this: when draft day comes, if he is drafted in the first round, his team will be extolled by the elites for its courage and openness. If he is drafted in a lower round, the league and its teams will be castigated for their cowardice and narrow-mindedness. Talent – the primary determinant, presumably – plays a lesser role. You could write that story today.

And if he is blocked hard or suffers an injury during a game, prepare for the allegations that he was treated differently, singled out, or punished for his group identity. But who is the one who foisted his group identity on an uninterested or unknowing public? The person himself. He could have chosen to be judged as an individual and keep private what is inherently private. He didn’t.  He diminished himself as an individual by asserting the primacy of his group identity.

That is the second problem. “The first” syndrome is dehumanizing. The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 37a) states that “the first man” (Adam; OK, that was an acceptable “first”) was created as an “individual” to show the preciousness of every person as an individual, as a unique existence, and as a special creation of G-d. “A person can mint many coins and they are all similar, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, fashioned every human being with the stamp of Adam, but no two human beings are alike.” And elsewhere the Talmud (Masechet Berachot 58a) asserts that “human beings neither think alike nor look alike.” We each possess the “divine image” – a soul – that guarantees our uniqueness. That is missing in a world where everyone is just a coin of one denomination or another.

The “first” syndrome also imposes a group-think obligation on all members of the group and thereby also belittles their individuality. Justice Clarence Thomas is lambasted, as are many conservative blacks, for not sharing the world-views or singing from the victimization hymnal of the professional black race-hucksters and their liberal enablers. Women who are not feminists (or even anti-feminists) are routinely castigated for their backwardness and betrayal of the sisterhood. There are homosexuals who are opposed to the re-definition of marriage. G-d help them withstand the wrath of their “group.”

And, as we know too well, it distorts politics and statecraft. The “first black” president was intensely desired by many; qualifications and background did not matter. The imperial presidency and its encroachments on freedoms in a way unseen in 40 years is ignored by the same media that has crucified other presidents for the same and for less. We should prepare ourselves for the onslaught of the “first woman” as president drumbeat. And then? Let every other group apply, I suppose. It will be their turn.

There is a “first” every day. Every day is the “first” time I have lived that day, prayed its prayers, performed the day’s Mitzvot and lived my life. Even the famous “firsts” are trivialized by the association of their accomplishments with only one aspect of their identity, for every person has multiple components. Human beings as individuals have many different connections and relationships; that – and our personalities – is what makes us individuals.

There is little that is as divisive in modern life as the diminution of the individual and the celebration of the group. The great sportswriter Jimmy Cannon once wrote about Joe Louis (the heavyweight champion boxer known as the “Brown Bomber”) that “he is a credit to his race, the human race.” Unfortunately, that mindset has died, replaced by our growing anticipation of reading of some achievement by the “first black/ female/ Jewish/disabled/homosexual to ever….”

Never mind.

12 responses to “The First

  1. Charles A. Deupree

    One of your best blogs to date. Would like to see this editorialized on mass media. Won’t happen but needs to.

  2. Great blog!

  3. For me personally, the most disturbing part of this situation is that politically correct minorities and nationalities are never blamed for anything, regardless of the quantity or quality of their wrongdoings; while politically incorrect people are treated the opposite way by the Liberal news media.

    There are numerous examples of this; let my fellow commentators on this web site describe their favorite examples.

  4. Barry Kornblau

    I don’t think Jackie Robinson or Thurgood Marshall or Sandra Day OConnor or Sandra Yellen or Golda Meir particularly suffered from the problems listed here.

    • I don’t know. Robinson had talent, so that spoke for itself. His breakthrough rectified an injustice and wasn’t tokenism at all. Marshall saw himself as representative of a group rather than the Constitution, so he typifies the problem. O’Connor is an interesting case, because she was a state court judge when she was nominated. I defy anyone to mention the last state court judge who went directly to the US Supreme Court, which means Reagan was looking for a woman. Were there more qualified men? Of course. It would not bother me in the least if the Supremes had nine women; it’s the tokenism that is disheartening.
      I think you mean Janet Yellen; the same could apply, although she certainly seems qualified. If Larry Summers had agreed, she would not be the Fed Chair. And Golda Meir was the last man standing, so to speak, after the Labor Party in 1969 had disqualified each other. She was assumed to be a caretaker as they fought over her succession. And was her tenure that successful? No. But she at least had a long career in a variety of ministries and public positions.

  5. Michael Feldstein

    Rabbi Pruzansky, how would you have felt if Senator Joseph Lieberman had became the first Orthodox Jew to become Vice President and then perhaps even President? According to your thinking, we should not feel specifically proud about such an accomplishment. My guess is there are a whole bunch of readers who might agree with your article, but who would have felt very proud had Senator Lieberman accomplished this. Isn’t that a double standard?

    • Short answer: I didn’t vote for him because I couldn’t vote for Gore. Issues matter more than personalities or firsts.

  6. To Michael Feldstein: As an Orthodox Jewish American, I would be mortified if an Orthodox Jew ever gets elected to POTUS or VPOTUS. And that’s regardless of that person’s party affiliation or political views. Why? Getting elected is all well and good, but there is enough Jew-hatred in America already without having a practising Jew in the Whitehouse or V.P.’s residence to blame for anything that goes wrong in Washington. A few Jewish Congressmen are fine, but as Jews, we surely do not need to be overly represented in our government, and therefore overly blamed for misfortune. Lest we forget, the Jews of America are in the diaspora. America has been kind to us Jews so far, but history has taught us not rely on this sort of kindness or take it for granted. I fear that too much visible representation in government could accelerate the end of the Jews’ well-being in America.

  7. Outstanding. You express the opinion that countless people hold, but cannot articulate as clearly. As Teddy Roosevelt said 100 years ago, Hyphenated Americans tend to raise the flag undermost. There are other problems with the close cousin of “first” syndrome, affirmative action. However, that is the subject of a different article.

    Two quick responses to your commenters:

    Barry – Thurgood Marshall was, if not quite a fool, little more than that. In “the Brethren”, Woodward describes the meeting between LBJ and Marshall when the latter was appointed. LBJ said he wanted people to see a black face when they came into the Court. That was his entire rationale, beginning and end. The exact same criteria that prompted millions of blacks and white liberals to elect this president.

    Michael – I would have the same feeling I have of him being the first orthodox senator – nothing whatsoever. No malice, but no pride. What I pride myself on is that we’ve matured, or should have matured enough to look past identity politics.

  8. Howard Carbis