Friday, June 21, 2013

Wagner's Anti-Semitism - Part 5: Beyond the Pale

We all know that there are a vast number of cultures and subcultures in the world. We are all human, of course, but within our “tribes” there are real differences. The fields of anthropology and sociology study both the differences and our shared humanity in these cultures: what is true of all human cultures, and what is unique to each culture. In general, people talk freely about the differences between cultures, even the things that might be considered negative qualities in a culture. I can say what I like and dislike in, for instance, the American or French or Italian culture without much worry that I will be accused of being anti-American, French or Italian.

This is not true of the Jewish culture at this point in time. If one says something negative about the culture now or in the past, it is often dismissed—at least by a very vocal sub-group of Jews and non-Jews alike—as anti-Semitism. And the person who says or writes this negative thing will be under a cloud of suspicion that they are, in fact, anti-Semitic. 

I get the reasons for this. The sensitivity, of course, is related to the long history of anti-Semitic thought and action, with its horrible culmination in the Holocaust. It’s a very rational sensitivity. But I do believe that academic discussion has been chilled by it. This is certainly true amongst those who write about Wagner. If you defend his views in any way, you are an “apologist” at best. Therefore, everyone—those who seek to defend him in any way or those on the attack—tend towards hyperbole about his anti-Semitism, just to distance themselves from the charge of anti-Semitism. This subject will be a more detailed post later, but I wanted to raise it as I am going against that grain in this post, and throughout my blog.

There is a widely held—though by no means universal—academic view that anti-Semitism is unrelated to actual, real Jews, their actions, or their culture. The author of the popular, but deeply flawed, book Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen, puts it this way in his book: “All antisemitism is fundamentally ‘abstract,’ in the sense of not being derived from actual qualities of the Jews.” And a few pages later he writes: “...anti-Semitism has fundamentally nothing to do with an antisemite’s knowledge of the real nature of Jews.”1 The author of Christian Anti-Semitism, William Nicholls, states it this way: “Causeless hatred for Jews came first, and conscious reasons for the hatred were always rationalizations.”2

This view tends to stop any kind of reasonable discussion as to what, if anything, may or may not be true in whole or part in Wagner’s views of Jewish culture (or anyone else’s for that matter.) If anti-Semitism is seen as solely irrational, just a learned hatred and can’t be anything but rationalizing, well then, that kills any sort of historical analysis, doesn’t it? 

The problem with discussing what is true or not true about Jewish culture extends to saying things about that culture that are positive, as well. For instance, Joe Biden was accused of accidentally fueling anti-Semitism in this speech to honor Jewish American History last month. In the talk, Biden praised the outsized influence per capita” of Jews, which he then went on to list. Johnathan Chait wrote about his speech:

It’s obviously true that Jews have flourished in the United States and, as Biden says, have achieved massively disproportionate representation in fields like science, culture, politics, academia, and so on. Jews regard this fact with a mixture of pride and neurosis. The neurosis is a fear that our success will be seen as a kind of invidious control, that the broader society will at some point say, no, you have too much.

I say, neurosis be damned. Facts are facts, and it is simply impossible to reasonably address modern anti-Semitism without at least knowing about the incredible rise of the Jews post-Englightenment—specifically Ashkenazi Jews—even if just to argue that it had nothing to do with later developments.

There are scholars, of course, who do connect the quick advancement of the Jews with the rise of modern anti-Semitism. Historian Arthur Lindemann, for example, argues in his book Esau’s Tears that “the most obvious material factor to take into consideration in trying to account for the growth of modern anti-Semitism – though not of course its deepest origins – is the rise of the Jews. It is not a fantasy but rather a perfectly real, measurable, and understandable development.”3

I would like to give a quick summary of that rise, before turning to Wagner’s position. While some of this will be repetitive, I am a Wagnerian and that’s what we do! (For those who don’t get the joke, the great comedian Anna Russell’s tour de force Ring lecture here will enlighten you.) 

The Jews lived in Europe without controlling any land for hundreds of years, and this put them in a very precarious position indeed (which led to multiple expulsions). Traditionally, the Jews had some—if obviously limited—protection given that, as George Fredrickson puts it in his book Racism, a Short History, “the existence of Jews must be tolerated because their ultimate conversion was essential to God’s plan for the salvation of the world.”4 Post-enlightenment, when religious reasons had lost their sway, the Jews' historical protection no longer existed as it had. The question in Germany became, again summarized by Fredrickson:

How Jews would fit in when cultural and linguistic identity became the basis of citizenship...[and it] could be answered in only one of two ways. Either Jews had to surrender their Jewishness and become good Germans or there would be no place for them. At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, a liberal assimilation's perspective was ascendant in German thought, but beneath it lurked a deep intolerance of the Jew who remained distinctive.5

You can condemn Germans for having the above view, but then virtually all cultures in all times must be equally condemned. That is certainly true of the United States which—I have already pointed out here—was far worse to our “others” than Germans were to Jews at this point, and that certainly includes Wagner. 

What is a fact is that Jews were different: they were foreign, they spoke a different language, they had a different history, and they were disliked or distrusted fairly universally in Germany for a variety of religious and cultural reasons. Therefore, virtually no one wanted them as part of Germany as they were.

It was in this fraught context—post-Enlightenment—that the rise of the Jews in Germany began. According to Peter Pulzer, “[u]p to the end of the eighteenth century, the great majority of Jews of the German states lived lives that were marginal to the economy and the rest of society, engaged in peddling or begging at a near destitute level.”6 These poor Jews were the ones seen invariably as backward and vulgar, by non-Jews and the small sub-group of Westernized Jews alike.

Given the “choice,” many Germans Jews quickly made the move away from that past, leaving the country for towns and cities, replacing religious Orthodoxy with a more secular viewpoint, dropping Yiddish and speaking only Hochdeutsch.  Along with it, they distanced themselves from other Jews, particularly Ostjuden (Eastern European Jews). According to Lindemann, “[t]he reactions of the overwhelming majority of western-educated German Jews to Yiddish paralleled and indeed epitomized their attitudes to the Ostjuden. Yiddish was, as one assimilated Jew typically put it, a “barbarous mishmash” and “an insult against all languages which it wrenches and destroys, monstrous in form and shocking in tone.”7

Thus, by rejecting their Eastern brethren, these Westernized Jews were attempting to show their assimilation, their essential Germanness. They were keeping the enlightenment bargain, and, therefore, they argued that they deserved full citizenship.

To fast forward, full citizenship came with the birth of the nation-state in 1871. By that point, the German Jews' rise had become stunningly obvious. As reported by Fredrickson:

The opportunities in commerce that opened up in the first half of the century became the launching pad that enabled the next generation to go to the university (admission was not restricted) and achieve success in the ‘free professions’ of law and medicine. Jews also found opportunities in the arts and journalism, while continuing to be prominent in the business world, not only in banking and finance but also in retail trade and light manufacturing. ‘By 1871,’ according to David Sorkin, ‘fully 80% of German Jewry qualified as bourgeois.’”8

It was this rise that Wagner was forever bitching about. Essentially, his argument was that Jewish culture was way more together than the German culture, and the Germans could not get it together with Jews in the mix. He argued that Jews would easily dominate the backward German people. His entire program was, of course, to regenerate the German people and culture, so this was a huge threat to his life work. He believed that the rise of capitalism gave Jews the means of economic and, therefore, cultural ascendancy, in that they were given the reins of capitalism via their domination of banking and financing. Wagner acknowledges—and blames—the Christians who put Jews in this role in the first place as part of a subjugation process, but also argued that, with the rise of capitalism, the Jews, who had both an intelligence and experience and who were the “virtuosi in an art which we bungle,” were now in control, and he believed that those who controlled the money ruled in the modern world.9

He further argued that German culture had degenerated and into this void, Jews brought entertainment for profit, which he called “art-commodity-exchange.” His life was devoted to regenerating German art. He hated art for profit; he hated art as mere entertainment. He believed art was sacred, so the Jewish cultural relationship to art was a direct threat to his life work and plan.

I would argue that Wagner's viewswhatever you think of his argumenthad an internal consistency that was rational. Those who assert that there can be no rationality in anti-Semitism, of course, won’t agree. (Obviously, his views were based on cultural stereotypes, but this post has gone on much too long to take up that issue now. I will do that next time.) Bottom-line: I don’t buy anything Wagner is selling in his argument, but I also don’t think it was morally wrong in and of itself to have his opinions and make his case. I don’t think his arguments are solely a product of irrational prejudice and paranoia.

Cultures are very often in conflict and that is just part of life, part of the human condition. This was a real, not illusory, conflict, with a mix of rational and irrational. I, to give a modern example, am in a real conflict with evangelic Christian culture: I argue against it; I think it is extremely damaging to the sort of society I want to live in; I think they are dead wrong. That said, I do not begrudge a Christian making the case that I am wrong, including saying that my “lifestyle” of being a lesbian is wrong, that my atheism is morally bankrupt, etc. That is what they honestly think, and I believe that anyone should be able to voice their beliefs in a civilized way. 

Given that Wagner lived in a time when almost every German shared his general beliefs about Jewish culture, and given that he devoted his entire life to his beliefs about art and spirituality, I absolutely think both his anti-Semitic beliefs and his public polemics about it were not beyond the pale of that day.

But here is the rub: He had a mean streak and liked to get revenge when he felt wounded. And this mean streak came out in his writings, in his public life and in his private life. As I have mentioned previously, everyone who has studied his life has come to the conclusion that the major point of Wagner's article Judaism in Music” was to get revenge on Giacomo Meyerbeer who he was convinced, via a paranoid delusion, had plotted against him, as well as to distance himself from Meyerbeer, whom he had groveled to. Although there is much in this article that could be defended, it is impossible to actually do so because of the meanness that inundates the piece. It is truly hard to quote a sentence that doesn’t have a dig, or several, in it.


Giacamo Meyerbeer, the object of Wagner's scorn

One of Wagner’s key points in the article was to argue that since Jews had a different language and culture, they couldn’t write authentic German music. That argument does not, in itself, seem anti-Semitic. People have argued that only someone from Appalachia can play true hillbilly music and only a Black person can really play the blues or gospel. Other people argue against that. Whatever. I am agnostic on this issue. But, on the face of it, it’s not considered a racist thing to say.

The problem is that Wagner makes his argument in a obnoxious, cruel way. I will re-quote one sentence of his essay as an example:

The first thing that strikes our ear as quite outlandish and unpleasant, in the Jew's speech, is a creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle: add thereto an employment of words in a sense quite foreign to our nation's tongue, and an arbitrary twisting of the structure of our phrases—and this mode of speaking acquires at once the character of an intolerably jumbled blabber; so that when we hear this Jewish talk, our attention dwells involuntarily on its repulsive how, rather than on any meaning of its intrinsic what.

(What he was describing here was, of course, an Eastern European Jew speaking Yiddish.)

As I noted above, German Jews were at this time trying to distance themselves from their Eastern brethren. Meyerbeer, Wagner's target, was a German (and French)-speaking Jew and could not be described at all by this description. So, by making that link, he was trying to keep tied together what German Jews were trying to sever. Wagner was making the argument that they shared the same “essence” of Jewishness, which they could not escape, whatever distinctions German Jews wanted to make. He was tweaking Meyerbeer, and all assimilated German Jews, with sentences such as this: “Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his father's stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they show an impertinent obstinence in cleaving to him.” This is a typical Wagner sentence, malevolent in many different ways.

You can spin it—he tried to do so—that he was an objective observer simply telling it like it was. But it just comes out malicious. In this area, there really is only one reaction any decent human being can have: What a jerk! I strongly believe it is legitimate to have contrary viewpoints, but to just be mean, to try to hurt someone and a whole people by being intentionally spiteful—now, that is beyond the pale. That was the dark part of his soul. It is this aspect of his character that I find the most difficult to forgive.




End notes

In terms of the subtitle of this blog, of course I mean "beyond the pale" figuratively, as it is used in this post as a figure of speech.  But I think the literal meaning of "beyond the pale" has some aptness as well.  If you don't know the literal meaning, see here.

By the way, when Disney put in the Ostjuden caricature of the wolf in the original Three Little Pigs as I mentioned in this post, I think he was being mean in exactly the same way. According to this“[i]n their book, Cartoon Confidential (Malibu Graphics Pub., 1991) authors Jim Korkis and John Cawley describe how Disney fired back at his tormentors [Jewish movie moguls] every time the opportunity arose. He would purposely inject anti-Semitic scenes in his cartoons, well aware they made Jews squirm.




1 Goldhagen, Daniel, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, 34, 41 The quotes are out of context, but I think it is a fair summary of his thesis.
2 Nicholls, William, Christian Anti-Semitism, page 313 
3 Lindemann,Albert, Esau’s Tears, 536-37.  Of course, this book was attacked by some for being anti-Semitic; see here
4 Fredrickson, George, Racism-A Short History, 21
5 Ibid, 71
6 Pulzer, Peter, Jews and the German State, 1848-1933, 69 
7 Wistrich, Socialism and the Jews, 142. What schmucks! For the record, I love Yiddish. I’ve stolen more words from Yiddish than any other language by far. 
8 Op. cit., Frederickson, 78; the David Sorkin quote comes from The Transformation of German Jewry, 1780-1840, page 173.  One should not think that formal legal equality actually led to real equality; just as barriers existed for Blacks in the United States long after formal equality, so too did multiple barriers remain against Jews.
9 Summary of Wagner's views came from these writings: Judaism in Music, What is German, Modern, Know Thyself. All can be downloaded here. The quote comes from Know Thyself.

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