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The Social Network of Jews and WASPs

December 9, 2010 – 9:56 pm12 Comments

The Winklevoss twins

By Larry Stillman Some films are best understood by insiders, and The Social Network is a case in point.  This is not to say that its story and message cannot be greatly enjoyed by outsiders, but The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, who also wrote The West Wing, left me reeling for its insider depiction of Harvard undergraduate life and its intersections with electronic age.  Throw in the subculture of Jews at Harvard and it is a cerebral experience.  The mostly cracking script draws upon the semi-fictional book, The Accidental Billionaires, by Ben Mezrich (also a Harvard graduate). When I saw the film in Pretoria recently, it was obvious from the silence that the Afrikaans-speaking audience was missing a lot of the rapid-fire subtlety of the film (it should have been subtitled), particularly from the opening scenes where the asocial and nasty Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg), has an argument with his girlfriend whom he subsequently calls a bitch in a blog post that helped promote his notoriety.  The film cuts betweens scenes of drunken hacking, social-climbing, lawsuits, sex with Asian-American girls, Boston Brahmin accents, Zuckerberg’s house of code-writers on the West Coast, and the crazy guy behind Napster.  This is all packaged as a kind of war between Zuckerberg, the asocial egocentric code writer and inventor of Facebook, and the elite private clubs at Harvard. Having been a very poor postgraduate student at Harvard, the film gripped me because of the accuracy of its depiction of the affected habits and mannered culture of this island of privilege. The film (and the book in particular), also has a strong Jewish angle, because Mark Zuckerberg and the Brazilian, Eduardo Saverin, the cofounder of Facebook (see his own review of the film) are of privileged Jewish background; although Saverin comes across more as an exotic foreigner than Jewish in the movie. In the film, they are presented as outsiders challenging insiders such as the as the twin WASP  Harvard Olympic rowers, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (look them up on Google). At one point, in faux Latin, Zuckerberg refers to them as the Winkelvī.  One critic suggests that Zuckerberg is “the Harvard Jew at war with Harvard’s WASP decorum.” I’d argue that Zuckerman is at war with Jewish decorum as well.  Mannered and Jewish Harvardians resembling WASPs have been around the place since the 1880s, with a numerus clausus (restrictive quota) during the first half of the twentieth century. Zuckerberg managed to get up other Jews’ (reshaped) noses as well by not sitting down for genteel tea, rather than coffee (to paraphrase Tom Lehrer). With such an establishment (which now incorporates elite African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians), the Winklevī think that they can tell the Jewish Larry Summers, the most arrogant of Harvard Presidents in recent times, what to do because Zuckerberg hasn’t played by gentlemen’s rules. Summers basically throws them out of his office to let them settle the problem as undergraduates, rather than corporate giants. He was mistaken, because the Winkelvī got Daddy’s lawyers involved. The Winkelvī and others, including Saverin, subsequently pursued Zuckerberg for financial compensation for intellectual property theft. A good part of the film comprises of excruciating interviews and confrontations in law offices between Zuckerberg and others. By the end, Zuckerberg is alone, trying to reconnect with an ex-girlfriend on Facebook. He is an unlikeable billionaire and a social failure.  You can’t tell if he knows or cares what damage he causes to other people, and you also can’t tell whether he is honest with himself about how rich and powerful he has become.  Even interviews with the real Zuckerberg that can be seen on YouTube still don’t let us know if he has a soul at all.  Perhaps in his genius he has created something whose implications he doesn’t fully understand. So what’s the Australian or Australian Jewish connection to the film?  Not much.  But in comparative terms, it is interesting to think about what Harvard represents as compared to the undergraduate experience in Australia. Harvard is not Melbourne University, nor is it Monash or anywhere else in Australia.  The residential colleges at Melbourne University (and I went to one) are a pale imitation of what goes on at Harvard.  The intense collegiate experience of the Ivy League, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, is probably unique in the world, as are the resources, whether intellectual or material. Significantly, at Harvard there are endowed chairs in all aspects of Jewish studies.  American Jewish philanthropy has supported all aspects of scholarship and study at Harvard.  And this is the case across the United States.  It is not just about being Jewish, but being American (in the best sense of the word), and academics work on the basis of such support in total freedom.  There is also an expectation, at least at the elite colleges, that students get something of that experience. Therein lies a big difference between the two Jewish cultures, one very large, extraordinarily diverse, and culturally confident, and the other, relatively peripheral, small and defensive, still finding its own particular path.  I thus wonder if creative people like Zuckerberg could ever arise in Australia. Finally, and as an aside, my take on why Facebook is such a phenomenon as a social networking platform: Facebook takes advantage of what Mark Granovetter  (not just another Princeton and Harvard alumnus, but another Hebe), in a famous sociological article, called the ‘strength of weak ties’. It lets us maintain our strong relationships, but also take advantage of weaker ties for information, fun, and a million other things, some of which haven’t even been thought up yet.

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12 Comments »

  • I found the stratification of students into WASP and non-WASP portrayed by the movie fascinating. It was staggering to see the lengths that students would go to, to be admitted into the upper class fraternities. Clearly they saw being part of those exclusive clubs as a networking meal-ticket for life. Did they go to Harvard for the quality education? or to access the WASP network (i.e. to make the Harvard Connection)?

  • The movie was FICTION! I am always amazed to see how may people watch these films ‘based on a true story’ and take them as fact or actual history. Most of this movie’s stories were just that- bubbah meisahs!

  • ariel says:

    Does the real Zuckerberg have Asperger’s Syndrome as depicted in the movie?

  • Malki Rose says:

    Haha, Ariel I think that was just a silly attempt to depict him like Mozart in the ‘Amadeus’ movie. (you know, silly genius with total social ineptitude and something from the autism spectrum, to almost justify the pure genius.) Hollywood doesn’t seem to know how to compliment someone without simultaneously insulting them.

  • frosh says:

    Interesting article Larry,

    I love this kind of stuff i.e. an examination of Jews and the genteel. It sounds reminiscent of some other films to tackle this topic to some extent:
    Quiz Show
    School Ties
    Chariots of Fire
    Caddy Shack II (tongue firmly planted in cheek)

  • frosh says:

    Larry,

    Your mention of numerus clausus reminded me of an article I read it as an undergraduate that you might be interested in this article is you haven’t already read it:

    Jewishness, blackishness, and the nature-nurture controversy

    by Seymour B. Sarason
    American Psychologist
    Volume 28, Issue 11, November 1973, Pages 962-971

  • Larry Stillman says:

    If you want to see the real Zukerberg there are interviews with him on Youtube. The film is pretty close I think. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3hu3iG8B2g

    The stories and accounts of Harvard snobbery are legion/legendary. Harvard is a door to the elite. It can be THE ticket, and can attract those with the killer instinct for success (and very nice people as well I must say who don’t want any part of it).

    But how would you be if you were SO young and this social-technological monster took off in the way it did? Maybe he really does only see the world in terms of ‘friends’ and not filthy lucre. But he has cut out a lot of people on the way, and on and on and on. Because technology’s effects are so unpredictable, in many ways, he has opened a Pandora’s Box of unintended effects which he, or any other person would find difficult to deal with. Bill Gates has certainly found it difficult over the years.

    You can search on back issues of the Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper (a training ground for journalistic success) for stories about Zuckerberg.

    The Winkelvii twins are suing him, again, so this isn’t fiction Shoshanna. Biography is always hard to write, as are biographic films. We can only provide various ‘lenses’, on accounts of reality or perceptions of reality. Try characterising anyone. It is very very difficult. But I am getting into philosophy.

  • Dennis the sensible one says:

    The aforementioned School Ties is one of the best ‘Jewish identity in America’ movies save for the ridiculous casting of Ed Lauter as the father of David Greene, the main character in the movie.

  • Mike says:

    “Zuckerberg managed to get up other Jews’ (reshaped) noses”

    Wow… thanks for the racist cliche, I guess.

    And the critics writing about the “WASP establishment” or some such thing at Harvard are living in an imagined world modeled after a fantasy 1950s. As you said, the president of Harvard was Jewish. By 1986, one third of all finals’ club presidents at Harvard were Jewish. That would have been when Zuckerberg was a toddler.

  • frosh says:

    Dennis,

    I always found that annoyingly odd casting too. Thankfully, that character doesn’t have a lot of screen-time so it doesn’t wreck the film.

  • frosh says:

    Mike,

    Your point that times have changed since the 1950s is true. However, with the removal of restrictive quotas came an over-representation of Jews This over-representation, while creating a reflexive kvelling response, also creates an anxiety in the Jewish psyche. Here is a quote from the late professor Sarason in his 1973 article that I mentioned above.

    A year ago when I was at a social gathering at Yale’s Hillel, the Rabbi told me, in confidence and with that all too familiar mixture of pride and fear, that approximately one-third of all students at Yale were Jewish. He did not have to put into words (or even bother to look at me to see if I understood his message) that this information should not be bandied about because it might arouse the envy and enmity of non-Jews. You might expect such an attitude in a rabbi but not in me, but such an expectation simply ignores what fine-tuned, efficient processes and mechanisms cultural transmission consists of, insuring that the most central aspects of our sense of identity are independent of choice and changes in our external world.

  • pamela says:

    Love the comparisons with Australia’s university sector and u.s ivy league universities. Hope that one day we can aspire to become that elitist..(insert smirk here).

    The great thing about our university sector despite it’s shortcomings is the lack of snobbery to some degree and the very cool and laid back attitude of students.

    That’s what makes us unique and special…we are not that up ourselves….yet!!

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