I saw, and enjoyed thoroughly, The Social Network over the weekend. I was struck by the centrality of the “Jew as outsider” theme, with Zuckerberg’s resentment and envy of Harvard’s WASP insiders portrayed as the driving force behind his ambition.
This is underlined most explicitly in the “final club” business, in which Zuckerberg, a member of the Jewish fraternity, longs to be a member of the fabled Porcellian or Phoenix clubs, and the central conflict between this suburban Jewish kid — with more brains and drive than grace — and the Winklevoss twins, the golden scholar-athletes who self-consciously embody the notion of a “gentleman of Harvard.”
And in case you didn’t get it, there’s the scene between the Winklevii and then-Harvard prez Larry Summers – the former invoking Harvard’s gentlemanly code (and presumably its past) while the burly, wise-cracking Summers (a Jew) represents the gate-crashing, meritocratic, post-diversity future.
It’s a compelling conceit, but feels a little dated. With waves of first Jewish, then Indian and Asian kids having crashed the ivy-covered gates long ago, and with not a single WASP sitting on the Supreme Court, is this ethnic outsider-insider thing still the reality at Harvard and Yale?
Of the reviews I’ve read, Lee Siegel at the Observer, in a review titled The Class Wounds of a Jewish Upstart, does the best job in exploring the Jew-gentile theme, and then some:
In The Social Network, Zuckerberg is yet another shocking Jewish outsider, yet another Jewish modernist shattering tradition, yet another Jewish argonaut of the unconscious. Marx thought he saw the mental destruction wreaked by capitalism’s creative forces. Freud thought he saw a war of all against all beneath the happy facade of the bourgeois family. According to Aaron Sorkin (a Jewish counterrevolutionary?), Zuckerberg perceived the ruthless will to gratify oneself behind the pleasant conventions of friendship.
UPDATE: Since posting this I discovered that Marc Tracy of Tablet got here first, in a well-done essay subtitled “‘The Social Network’ and the Outsider”:
Yet I have to wonder whether The Social Network’s narrative of Jew-against-all is not a bit dated. After all, long gone are the days when Jews were true outsiders at Harvard and (nearly) everywhere else. In 1969, Philip Roth’s Alexander Portnoy could have parents who marveled at their son’s invitation to Gracie Mansion; today, we live in Gracie Mansion (or, rather, we host parties there, and live in a $30 million townhouse in a better neighborhood). One of my favorite lines from my favorite movie, 1978’s Animal House (set in 1962), is: “Bad news: I just checked with the guys at the Jewish house, and they say all our answers to the Psych test were wrong.” Today, you’d make that joke about the Asian house, or the Indian house—the Jewish house is just another house. At Harvard, I can personally attest, there are Jews in even the most elite final clubs. (Myself, I’ve been inside one of them, The Fox, because my oldest friend was a member. I obviously was not allowed upstairs, but I didn’t particularly care.)