Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Shalom, elites

Britta's comment below has got me wondering: how have I lost my spot on my own blog as the sniffer-outer of anti-Semitism in contemporary America? Why have I failed my readers? I had to remind myself that I have, in fact, addressed the relationship between 21st-century American populism and the Bad Old kind, here, here, here, here, and probably elsewhere as well - these were just the posts I found doing a search for "Palin" on this blog.

But, to re-address: How we phrase the question is important. We should ask what the relationship is between "Real America" Tea Partyism and anti-Semitism, as opposed to whether the populism of today's right-wing is anti-Semitic. Because there's a relationship - any time New York, media elites, and overprotective parents are the villains of the day, there's a whiff of anti-Semitism. That there is some relationship isn't up for debate. Or of it is, it's because people can't tell the difference between anti-Semitism and genocidal Nazism - if you think any entity not set on exterminating the Jews couldn't possibly have even the faintest ties to anti-Semitism, than maybe you'd find even the "relationship" accusation too harsh. But if you (like me) think anti-Semitism just means bigotry against Jews, with a particular and historically consistent-ish set of tropes, then the fact that "coastal elites" kinda sounds like it refers to "Jews" isn't controversial in the least.

Murray's complaint, that the "New Elites" are not culturally representative - not of America, but of that which is "quintessentially American" - highlights where populism stops being about improving conditions for the majority, and starts being about the deification of an "authentic" minority. (See J.L. Wall's discussion.) And of course, Jews are never part of any country's Real population (except Israel's, but the country's realness is still, unfortunately, for practical purposes, up for debate), according to the sort of people who see things in this light. However, if we were to ask, is the Tea Party anti-Semitic?, it would be too easy to radically over- or underestimate.

This leaves several questions:

-Are Tea Partiers and Palinites consciously anti-Jewish? A caricaturist might depict a generic evil banker as having a big nose without thinking about that banker's ethnicity. It's just banker=nose in the popular imagination. The caricaturist could perhaps be faulted for ignorance, maybe expected to apologize. But it wouldn't necessarily be the case that either the caricaturist or his non-Jewish audience had made the connection. While I would be shocked if there weren't some populists today who have it in for Jews (and the Internet threads where they assemble are a Google away), I also suspect that many who are all riled up about coastal media elites aren't making that connection. Today's political correctness prevents leaders, at least, at least most of the time, from giving speeches in which they actually refer to "Jews" as the source of the country's problems. And not everyone can read between the lines. If there's mounting hostility towards wealthy, New York-based, large-nosed media elites, but the hostile masses haven't connected their enemy with those of the Mosaic persuasion, what changes?

-Do sympathy for Israel or hostility towards Secret Muslins act as a kind of shield against anti-Semitism coming from today's right? Britta mentions this possibility, and I think it's valid. Maybe the silver lining, such as it is, to Islamophobia on the right is that for geopolitical reasons it prevents The Enemy Within from being identified as Jewish, as opposed to coastal-media-elitish. Or maybe not - in Europe, it's possible for white supremacists who hate Muslims to claim the Palestinian cause as a pretext for attacking Jews. It's not inconceivable that American right-wingers could take Israel's side politically, while still hating Jews at home. Hate doesn't have to be consistent. In other words, I'd say that far from taking comfort in populist Islamophobia, American Jews ought to view it as dangerous to us both as Americans and as Jews. But in the short-term, it's entirely plausible that one xenophobia's reducing the openness, at least, of another.

-Are American Jews in any kind of danger on account of anti-coastal-media-elitism? This is what it comes down to, and I don't have an answer.


rshams said...

Charles Murray's definitions of elite vs. real were certainly rooted in a view of American authenticity that can reasonably be associated with old-school negative views about Jews. The same would apply to Palin's deification of (white, Christian, 1950s-era) small-town life. As you mentioned, the intentions are fairly irrelevant.

I think the Tea Party's emphases at the grassroots level are slightly different - at least publicly. From my decidedly non-expert observations, their resentments seem to be predominantly directed at "Washington elites", which doesn't have the same association with "Jews" as, say, "New York media elites." Sure, many of them probably perceive DC and New York as being part of the same East Coast elite, but at least from what I've read about their rallies and so forth, they seem to be more interested in airing out their vague political (rather than vague cultural) resentments.

So, I guess my point would be that conservative "elites" (ha) like Murray, Palin, Gingrich, etc. are putting forth a more culturally-based elite vs. real argument that does have its roots in anti-Semitic tropes of the past, while the average Tea Partier is less interested in the culture war than their vision of "good government."

(This is not meant to be a defense of the Tea Party's political positions or any undercurrents of racial resentment that they may have.)

Sigivald said...

I also suspect that many who are all riled up about coastal media elites aren't making that connection.

Well, if it helps, I'm not all riled up about CMEs (to coin an acronym to save typing effort)... but I've sure read a lot of blogs by people who are annoyed at them.

And I haven't detected any conflation of the CMEs
(or the Coastal non-Media Elite, for that matter) with Jews.

I can understand the historical reasons why talk of a geographically limited (and especially East Coast) "elite", combined with the trope of "Jews in Media" (its accuracy being irrelevant to its effect as a trope) would naturally lead one to suspect that "Coastal Media Elite" might be a proxy for "the Jews".

But I think hardly anyone using the term or equivalents for it is using it as a proxy for Jews.

(The primary exception would be the people who were already anti-Semites and have found a way to express that, using CME as a proxy for Jews in their own usage, with the other usage providing them cover. I suspect the set of people in that circumstance is larger than 0, but not significant.)

People I've seen talking about Coastal Elites (media or otherwise, and let's not forget the huge resonance of "coastal liberals" vs. "flyover country" - most people who talk in terms of a Coastal Elite* don't, in my experience, limit it to Media.

They're referring to anyone who thinks only the Blue enclaves on the coasts "matter" - not just LA, on the West Coast, but SF and Seattle, both of which lack the "Jewish proxy" resonance LA can get because of the "Jews in Hollywood" trope.

I suspect that, more than your "many ... aren't making that connection", it's "almost all ... aren't".

(And on the second point, I agree. Today's right in the US has a lot of Israel-friendliness and philo-Semitism, from religious sources.

A generic church in America is far more likely to be friendly to Jews now than, say, a hundred [or perhaps even 50] years ago.

This effect, from religious philo-Semitism (either because "Jews are special to God even though they're not accepting the new Covenant of Christianity" or because "Jews are important because they're paving the way for the Second Coming, doing God's work") is completely independent of hostility towards Muslims, secret** or not.

Both exist, but they're separate causes.

(* Where the Eliteness is self-selected by those in the group; I mean to make it clear that the people using this term do not believe that the CEs are actually an "elite" in terms of ability or value in general.)

(** Also, "Secret Muslins"? Best typo EVER.)

Miss Self-Important said...

So if the terms "media elites" and "bankers" are always intentional or unintentional code for "Jews," then what words should someone use to express his dissatisfaction with actual medial elites and bankers?

You might also consider--and this is relevant to Britta's claim in a previous post that insular, self-replicating groups in America that are blond and white get a "free pass" while Jews are subject to suspicion--that historically, the much more politically important target of tropes about "real America" have been Catholics. Catholics were accused of being overly urban and in control of city politics (which they were corrupting by their control), overly fertile, overly insular, possessed of suspicious dual loyalties, unpatriotic, and unwilling to assimilate to real America (particularly in their refusal to send their children to public schools). Indeed, the first anti-immigration efforts in the US were made against them, not Jews. If you want to advance an argument that political rhetoric in the present is anti-Semitic when it evokes tropes once used in the service of anti-Semitism, it's not clear to me why the immediate victim should be assumed to be the Jews when the tropes can be similarly found in rhetoric against other previously unloved groups? Unlike France, the US has a much less robust tradition of anti-Semitism, and a much longer and more explicit tradition of anti-Catholicism.

Phoebe said...


I don't get credit for "Muslins" - it was on a now-notorious anti-Obama, I believe, protest sign.


"So if the terms "media elites" and "bankers" are always intentional or unintentional code for "Jews," then what words should someone use to express his dissatisfaction with actual medial elites and bankers?"

Same as if you're going to hold forth on purple-wearing interior designers, urban basketball enthusiasts, etc. - you need to specify that you're not referring to a specific ethnic group if your complaint is very likely to be confused with bigotry. I don't think anyone's saying (at least, I'm not saying) that just being anti-banker is anti-Semitic - it's once bankers, cities, New York, the media, those-lacking-Christian-values, those-unfamiliar-with-country-music, etc., become the enemy that things get iffy. The enemy is a particular type, and, as Britta correctly notes, it's a type that's long been associated in the public imagination with Jews.

Re: Catholics, I wouldn't deny them the right to complain if they're feeling targeted. But times have changed, and if a man with a name like O'Reilly can represent the exclusionist right-wing, while Jon Stewart's Jewishness is apparently not forgotten, I don't think it's Catholics the Real America brigade is interest in. Not that they are interested in Jews - it probably is just about arugula-latte-smoothie consumers of any ethnicity. But the Irish have been white for a long time now, and the remaining politically-significant bigotry against Catholics is against Latinos who happen to be Catholic, and not about their religion.

Miss Self-Important said...

Would you really be convinced of someone's non-anti-Semitism if they made public statements like, "The New York media elite is colluding with financiers to take over the world, and by media elite and financiers, I don't mean the Jews"?

"But the Irish have been white for a long time now, and the remaining politically-significant bigotry against Catholics is against Latinos who happen to be Catholic, and not about their religion."
This is what I don't really find so convincing. Can't someone equally claim that the Jews are just as white as the Irish, and any remaining politically-significant bias against them is against Jews who happen to be employed in industries that have very recently done some serious harm to the US economy? Similarly, partisan conservative opposition against Jews is against Jews who happen to be liberals, and like Bill O'Reilly, Jews who identify as moral traditionalists (Ben Stein comes to mind, Leon Kass, no one with a TV show though) are accepted by the real America contingent.

When your evidence of anti-Semitism is in the invocation of implicit tropes rather than explicit bigotry, and those tropes turn out also to have been deployed against other groups, I'm not sure what basis you have to determine which group in particular is being targeted this time. It's not really enough to assert that the targets must be Jews because Jews are more hated than Catholics, since your whole point seems to be that this kind of anti-Semitism is not really based on hatred (a la the Nazis) or any clear sense of anti-Jewish feeling on the part of those who deploy it. If that's true, and they're just unconsciously thinking within certain rhetorical constructions that have a history of which they're equally unaware, then what makes you sure that these constructions are anti-Semitic and aren't left over from some other use?

Phoebe said...

As I said in the post, I don't think the Tea Party is an anti-Semitic movement, rather one that uses tropes that many (not you - fine, no one at all other than Britta and myself) see as coming out of a very specific tradition of anti-Semitism, one with roots in the US and elsewhere - more elsewhere, but not only elsewhere. There's always overlap - the major anti-Jewish author in 1840s France basically considered Protestants to be equivalent to Jews - but, again, when you're looking at a particular set of overlapping terms ("liberal" and "elite" not being the only ones), it's about Jews. I mean, Catholics may have traditionally been associated with cities, but the expression in polite society, "he's so very New York wasn't about JFK. But even if we are going to say that these tropes also, some of the time at least, target Catholics between the lines, all that means is that they, too, should be on alert. It doesn't mean Jews should not think anything of it.

Again, I don't know in what way or to what extent it matters that these tropes have these origins, assuming no one's mobilizing an anti-Semitic movement. If only two grad students who spend a lot of time reading about the past and about other countries are noticing, then it doesn't matter. But I suspect Britta and I are not the only ones with this interpretation.

Anyway, I think it's a stretch to think that Jews are considered as "white" as other white "ethnics" who are Christians. (Except there's Jersey Shore...) I'm also not ready with a checklist that will, in this comment, convince you of why I think this, but maybe after some sleep...

Phoebe said...

Also, if anything, I'd thought the Real America between-the-lines was understood as being anti-black - the whole take-America-back thing is viewed that way, at least. Key words tend to get at more than one group - "urban" can be more than just Jews, obviously.

Basically, what matters is whether there's political mobilization against certain groups, but also whether certain groups believe they're being targeted. What matters isn't whether I think, after too much Dreyfus Affair, that things look fishy, but whether this is something American Jews are disturbed by more generally.

Miss Self-Important said...

But this version is even more confusing, since now you seem to be suggesting that the way to discern who the (unintended?) targets of certain ambiguous tropes are is by asking potential targets if they feel targeted. But how do their perceptions change the meaning or intentions of Tea Partiers one way or the other?

Phoebe said...

OK, let me preface this by saying I'm half-asleep, and you can outargue me even at fully awake.

But to try to get something out as a response here, what ultimately matters is if Group X is in danger, something that's hard to assess in non-pogrom situations. If Group X feels, with some reason, to be in danger, and, say, up and leaves the country, or ceases to feel politically engaged, or shifts politically, this is significant. If Jews hear anti-Semitism between the lines of Tea Party rhetoric, this is important even if only some of that rhetoric is intended that way. If Jews don't (data so far from this thread - one does, one doesn't), then this is my brain on Dreyfus.

What matters, in addition to intent and reception among Jews is reception among non-Jews - are anti-Semites among the non-Jewish population reading between the lines and feeling that they have a new legitimacy? Is the movement doing anything to discourage that interpretation? Also, if a political movement knows Group X feels targeted by them and is not entirely paranoid in feeling so, but the movement just kind of shrugs, continuing its tropes, because it's not as if they're being explicitly bigoted, Group X is unlikely to feel reassured, to feel as though supporting that movement is a viable option, etc.

Miss Self-Important said...

I think Group X, that being the Jews, is unlikely to feel that supporting the movement is a viable option precisely because the movement's antagonism is aimed at things many of them are and do--live in New York, work in finance/media, endorse liberal ideas. It's not really in their interest to support the Tea Party, but that's independent of their Judaism or perceived slights against it. So, if some kind of empiricist challenged you to design a study or otherwise substantiate the proposition you offer here, how would you do it in a way that controls for possible confounding variables?

I'm not really trying to out-argue you. I don't support the Tea Party (or, more importantly, even understand what it is). If it were anti-Semitic, that would be interesting. But that's a weighty accusation, and one that can unfairly discredit people's arguments out of hand. My sense is that, at this point, we're only swapping intuitions--yours being that the Tea Party as channeled by Charles Murray is anti-Semitic, mine being that generally conservatives and especially neocon-ish ones like Murray are not (although who knows about populists? they are volatile). Hence, the request for substantiation. But since not everyone is drinking Coke at 1 AM trying to finish their reading like I am, you are permitted to sleep instead of continuing this debate.

Phoebe said...

I agree that anti-Semitism is a weighty accusation. I also think it shouldn't be as weighty as it is - it shouldn't mean genocidal, but rather a garden-variety anti-Jewish bigotry, unless otherwise specified. I also am not even accusing the Tea Party of anti-Semitism, but rather trying to figure out what to make of their use of tropes that I interpret as having anti-Semitic undertones, when it doesn't seem as though the movement is, in fact, anti-Jewish, or even particularly interested in Jews either way.

I also agree that Jews, by and large, probably aren't interested in Tea Partying, regardless. The libertarian angle, perhaps, but the cultural one, not so much, for the reasons you mention. But I do think there's a difference between not-for-me sentiment and not-for-me-because-I'd-feel-under-attack-at-one-of-their-meetings sentiment. An imperfect analogy would be to gays and small towns. A gay man might say that a particular small town isn't for him because, for example, there wouldn't be many other gay men for him to meet. Which is different from, but not mutually exclusive with, him thinking he couldn't live in that town openly.

Which brings up a related question - is Quintessential Americana something Jews look down on, not as Jews but as cosmopolitans or whatever, or something Jews are wistful about not having access full to on account of being Jewish? I think there are elements of both, but that it would be foolish to entirely discount the latter.

Miss Self-Important said...

Right, I do recall now that part of your program is to be able to level the accusation more widely with less damage to the accused. In that respect, I am probably much more anti-Semitic than most Tea Partiers because I explicitly think about Jews more than they do, and thus have on average more group-generalizing and indeed even negative thoughts about them. What then is gained from the de-escalated version of anti-Semitism that is not currently available in the weighty version?

Phoebe said...


I, in turn, remember that you had once asked here what the point is of pointing out anti-Semitism when one sees it, say, in an article. The point of the "de-escalated version" is that it puts anti-Jewish bigotry in the same category as other bigotries - something that can be called out in everyday occurrences. Now, one might ask, why is it necessary to call out any bigotry that hasn't reached the level of systematic violence, but this would then apply to all kinds. One could only refer to "racism" when someone expressed the hope that blacks would be reinslaved, say, but not in reference to an Imus-type remark, certainly not to someone black being called "articulate." This isn't an argument I'd agree with, but my point is that independent of the question of how severe bigotry should have to be to be called out, putting anti-Semitism in the same category as equivalent 'isms is a way of putting Jews on the same footing as other groups.

I assume you're being tongue-in-cheek re: your own thoughts about Jews. Whatever negative thoughts you may have, presumably if a synagogue's attacked you'd feel more threatened than rah-rah.

Miss Self-Important said...

"I assume you're being tongue-in-cheek re: your own thoughts about Jews. Whatever negative thoughts you may have, presumably if a synagogue's attacked you'd feel more threatened than rah-rah."

Sure, but isn't that exactly why systemic violence is salient when my thoughts about the "deviated septum" excuse for nose jobs among Jewish women isn't? I don't see how the expansion of the definition of racism has made accusations of it less damaging. Don Imus lost his job over it. So how is decoupling anti-Semitism from violence or threats of violence (or some kind of legal discrimination) going to de-escalate it when that's not the effect we've seen with other isms whose scope was likewise expanded?

Phoebe said...

You're right that the further any definition of bigotry gets from straightforward "Down with the Xs" or violence, the easier it is for witch-hunts, thought-police, and unfair accusations to begin. But I don't think it's as black and white, so to speak, as all that - it's possible to include use of tropes, allusions, and (to stay on the rhinoplasty theme) big-nosed caricatures in a definition of bigotry without destroying the life and career of anyone who one time accidentally says the wrong thing to the wrong reporter. Anyway, in these situations, the person brought down for poorly chosen words is usually brought back up again soon - wasn't Imus either rehired or hired to do something similar? I think it's important to weigh the dangers of PC with those of the bigotry it's their to combat, rather than to just dismiss PC as useless.