Home » Arts and Culture, Larry Stillman

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.

Print Friendly