Ideology or Biology?
By Stephanie Herman
August 6, 1996
In his program which aired March 20th, 1995, Phil Donohue showcased two
cultural spokespeople -- one black, one Jewish -- who were both
demanding something they called "cultural purity." Sheharazad Ali, a
frequent talkshow guest opposed to the tainting of African culture,
loudly criticized Jews for their ancestral involvement in the slave
trade and, for this reason, denounced African-Jewish cultural harmony.
Two seats down from Ali, an outspoken rabbi was equally uninterested in
living as one with his black neighbors; to do so would not be conducive
to maintaining Jewish religious or cultural purity. Both seemed to
despise one another, but agreed wholeheartedly -- almost warmly -- on
the issue of separatism.
Indeed, rather than advocating unity, peace or forgiveness for sins of
the past, on Donohue's stage that day it seemed more important to
preserve, as separate, inborn cultures. But this notion begs the
question -- is culture inborn? And if so, how do we preserve such a
According to some of Donohue's panelists, cultural preservation is
achieved by marrying only those born into your culture, avoiding
corruption of the blood lines, and inciting harsh words and studio
tension between your warring cultures on any daytime talk show that will
To celebrate one's faith or heritage is admirable, but I wonder if Ali
can also appreciate the Jews who founded the NAACP. I wonder if the
rabbi would embrace converts to Judaism with the same enthusiasm as
those born into the faith. Certainly, any rabbi desiring to maintain the
purity of Judaism at the exclusion of other races is concerned less with
religious belief than with heredity. The rabbi forgets that cultural or
religious ideals are solely the matter of ideology; the Random House
College Dictionary defines "orthodox" as "correct in opinion or
doctrine," not correct in lineage or ethnicity.
The "us and them" mentality based on biological differences is, of
course, nothing new. Primordial solidarities were based on family and
tribal biology long before civilized man ever thought to conceive of an
ideology. But our 20th century global population is still fairly
unenlightened regarding the derision biological solidarities can cause.
Should Hitler's name be broached in reference to this subject, a certain
percentage of said population will salute, a certain percentage will
cringe, and another percentage will doubt that any of his atrocities
ever took place.
An illustration of our failure to learn from past mistakes in cultural
purification can be found today in something called "cultural" feminism,
which grounds its solidarity more on biological, i.e., "female,"
footings than ideological ones. In her 1991 book, Feminist
Fatale, Paula Kamen describes cultural feminism as subsuming
female approaches to music, medicine, art, religion, business,
etc. Again, it may be admirable to celebrate gender, but it's
reprehensible to value the female gender as superior to that of the male
(just as reprehensible, in fact, as to value the male gender as superior
to the female). As just one of a slew of divisive results, many cultural
feminists chastise men for prying into "female affairs" when trying to
genuinely and sympathetically participate in furthering the progress of
Can gender -- or, for that matter, race or nationality -- be responsible
for superior approaches to such things as art, medicine music, religion
or business and as such, necessitate the need to remain separate? Isn't
biological superiority a dangerously flawed notion of which we accused
the SS and the KKK of embracing in fatal error?
A fine line separates brotherly love and solidarity from feelings of
superiority. Consider the fairly innocent impetus behind teenage
enlistment into such organizations as the KKK or street gangs. Most of
these teens are simply looking for a structured environment and a source
of love (in the form of solidarity) they haven't found at home. Once
initiated, these kids enjoy a family bond between group members of their
"own kind." But the flipside to all this love and solidarity is, of
course, learning to hate those who are not of their "own kind."
Civilized society maintains that it is possible to love what is "you"
without hating that which is "not you." Yet, when biological solidarity
and superiority have been established, it seems almost impossible to
exhibit one without the other.
Apparently, inclusive attitudes are also impossible for the cultural
leaders striving for "purity" within their ranks. Such leaders, so eager
to balkanize the landscape, should stop trying to biologically separate
their people from the world at large and should search, instead, for
that ideological common ground our global community can unequivocally
This article copyright © 1996 by Stephanie Herman and may
not be reproduced in any form without the express written consent of its
author. All rights reserved.