Friday, June 28, 2013

Wagner's anti-Semitism, Part 6 — Stereotyping

Short Intro

In my last post, I said that Wagner’s critique of Jews had rationality; that it wasn’t just a non-sensical dislike, though it did have irrational and paranoid aspects to it. In saying that it was rational, I recognize that I am crossing what might be considered a line of accepting certain Jewish stereotypes as, more or less, true. But, bear with me here. I want to address what I think is clearly true—and not true—about those particular stereotypes later on, but first I want to look at the whole concept of stereotypes in a larger context.

An important note: When I refer to Jews or the Jewish culture, I obviously include any person who is religiously Jewish, but if someone is born into a Jewish family but doesn't practice Judaism, I’m going with Woody Allen who said “I’m not a real Jew but Jew-ish.” Thus, when I refer to Jews I mean both real Jews and the Jew-ish.


The word "stereotype" was coined by the writer Walter Lippman in the 1922 book Public Opinion (text here).  In describing stereotypes as a basic way we organize our world, he counseled “to hold them lightly, to modify them gladly.” Ironically, he didn’t do this at all with his own cultural group, Jews. Throughout his life he distanced himself from them, particularly the nouveau riche Jews.  Lippmann described them in a 1922 article as the “real fountain of anti-Semitism,” because “they rush about in super-automobiles, bejeweled and furred and painted and over-barbered...they stir up the latent hatred against crude wealth in the hands of shallow people.”1

Lippmann's failure to hold stereotypes lightly is instructive: it might not be an easy thing for our brains to do. 

The fact is that while stereotypes are seen as a negative, they are inevitable and unavoidable. In this article on Finnish culture, Jaakko Jyväskylä author summarizes this point: 

Often, stereotypes are understood to be detrimental to intercultural communication and the elimination of stereotypes was believed to be a prerequisite for any successful intercultural exchange.... However, eliminating stereotypes is not possible, or, if it were done, it would be detrimental to human cognition. Stereotypes, as such, are cognitive schemata, typical of the human cognitive system, which assigns a set of characteristics to all members of a given social group, and serves as a reference when assigning significance to observations and experiences in social interactions. They are mental structures, which simplify the complex stimuli from one's environment and facilitate their comprehension. 

Tribalism and cultural stereotyping fit tightly together. Recognizing human behavior patterns that are different from our own helps us sort friend from foe, danger from safety—probably way more than we need in the modern world, though. But we still need to read people to negotiate the world, and stereotyping helps that process. That stereotyping along with tribal tendencies often team to create havoc is the problem of our age, and all ages.  But the solution is not to pretend we can and should stop our categorizing.  It's what we do as humans.

It is also an automatic process. While we can think and reflect on stereotypes we have consciously, the norm is that we do not. This article summarizes the research: 

The findings of this experiment [outlined within the article] provided confirmation that stereotypes can facilitate cognitive processing by conserving and economizing cognitive resources. Additional studies by the same researchers (Macrae, Milne & Modenhausen, 1994) indicate that the process of using stereotypes operates in an unintentional manner without the perceiver’s awareness.... The presence of stereotypes does not mean that the person gives up all conscious, voluntary and reasoned control of cognition. A person may choose to give up the advantages and savings associated with stereotypes to engage in an active, more complicated mode to cognitive processes in certain circumstances. There is no doubt that stereotypical thinking can lead to negative, prejudicial and discriminatory beliefs, especially because of the automatic, default nature of the operation.
Our ability to perceive stereotypes—patterns—is what makes us smart, makes us survive.  The negative is that they can easily lead to prejudice.  One has to negotiate that line. But the first thing we need to do is get our own stereotypes out of the automated mode, and actually think about them.

Humor and Stereotypes

I just want to give a plug for comedy as one of the best, and most enjoyable, ways to bring us out of this automated process. Through using stereotypes in jokes, we are forced into conscious awareness of them.

Yanko Tsvetkov, aka alphadesigner, has made a career of mapping stereotypes such as the ones below. 

He is Bulgarian by birth, but is European by life history. See all his maps here. An article about the project is here

It is clear that he is trying to make us laugh—mostly at ourselves—and think. I love the way the maps stereotype the mentality of the particular group—in this case Americans—via his projected view of their stereotypes about other cultures.

I also think The Onion article “Study: Majority Of Americans Not Informed Enough To Stereotype Chechens,” which was written in the wake of the Boston bombings, is close to comic genius in satirizing American ignorance, sociological research and our use of stereotyping to make sense of the world. 

Obviously, there are lots of jokes that use stereotypes directly (i.e. dumb blond jokes, lightbulb jokes, etc.) My favorite—which pokes fun at one of my groups: Q: How many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Answer: That’s not funny. I’ve known plenty of feminists who have met that stereotype, so I get it; it is funny. And effective in making me think about the extent and ways it is true or not.

More sophisticated comedy uses stereotypes via cognitive incongruity, with I think some potentially positive effects. Our expectations are, in some way, twisted. A great example of that is Sarah Silverman’s very compact joke that even feminists laugh at, or at least this feminist: “I was raped by a doctor, which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl.” A taboo joke subject meets a stereotype and our brain comes alive, waking up the cognitive recesses of our mind, creating an opportunity for thought and reflection.

Wagner and the cultural stereotyping of Jews

Moving on to that thought and reflection, the question becomes, do our brains get it right? Generally, are our stereotypes basically true?

I believe that they usually are; our brains are very adept at perceiving patterns. The trouble is not that we perceive a stereotype, the problem is what we do with it. Stereotypes are only true about a culture—or segments of the culture—in aggregate, but they say much less, sometimes nothing, about individuals in the culture. If we assume that what is a tendency or trait in aggregate will also be so in each individual in the group, that is pre-judging, i.e. prejudice. Prejudice, of course, has historically led to anti-social behavior against members of the groups, discriminatory laws, etc. Wagner absolutely took that step from stereotyping to prejudice, believing that all Jews shared traits in common that he felt were harmful to the German culture. And, for that, he has little excuse except that it was a near universal tendency in his time to leap from stereotype to prejudice.

What is very striking, and different, about his prejudice, though, is that he had so many close Jewish friends all his life and, particularly, towards the end of his life when he was considered to be the most anti-Semitic. As recorded in Cosima’s diary, he had on-going contact with a large number of male Jews, who all said wonderful things about him as a human being. These men weren’t incidental, but an integral part of his daily life. I am going to discuss this in the next post a little bit more, but it is something that is fairly unique given his prejudices, and needs a little exploration.

For a recap, Wagner’s formula wasn’t: Germans are good; Jews are bad; if the Jews weren’t here everything would be peachy. Wagner’s formula was instead: capitalism (the economy organized around a profit motive) is bad, Germans are bad, French are very bad, the Christian church is awful, particularly the Catholics, and Jews are the worst.

Now why did he think the Jews were the worst? Because he felt they were the best at capitalism, so they would have the means via the power of money to promulgate their own cultural agenda. They were not—could not as they were foreign to the culture—create German art for spiritual and cultural regeneration, which was his goal, but they could only create mass entertainment. Wagner wanted art to replace religion; most Jews, except perhaps for the few Wagnerian ones mentioned above, did not have that agenda. For Marx, religion was the opiate of the masses; for Wagner, it was entertainment.

I will discuss Wagner’s idea—art in place of religion—in a future post, but I do think he is right, and that the stereotype is true, that Jewish men—occasionally women— have been in the forefront of creating mass entertainment in the modern world, and many Jewish men have gotten extremely rich in the process. That is to say, I do believe there is something about the history and culture of the Jews in general that has led many individual Jews into success in this cultural realm, and in many other realms. Beyond entertainment, Jews have been successful, far beyond their percentage of the population, in banking and finance, law, medicine, science, the clothing trade, journalism and more.

I do think I should mention that historically many Jews turned away from capitalism and joined the socialist or communist movement and, here too, they were often found in disproportionate numbers in the leadership. They have, therefore, been seen simultaneously, and quite illogically if “all Jews” share the same traits, both as greedy capitalists and the anti-capitalist revolutionaries. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

My view is that Jews come from a hyper-competent culture and the lion’s share of Jewish individuals will do well or, quite frequently, fantastic in whatever realms they decide to pursue. The reasons for this hyper-competency have been studied with several theories, mostly revolving around some combination of history, literacy and education, and cultural expectation. But the fact of it is, I think, impossible to dispute.2

Their competence and success is a point of pride to Jews, but simultaneously a point of attack by anti-Semites. To reference Jewish historical out-performance in relationship to other groups is considered to be dangerous, giving fuel to the fire of those who are not happy about the Jews great success as a culture. In fact, if you google articles about Jewish success in America, the results will just as likely be from a neo-Nazi or Christian site than from a Jewish or mainstream site.3 

But, come on. They had—continue to have—incredible success. This should be celebrated, and I don’t believe we should shy from that just because of what neo-Nazis will say about it, or that they will use this celebration to make their perverted points.4 We need to answer those neo-Nazis with “more and better speech,” as the great constitutional scholar Gerald Gunther put it in his influential essay “Freedom for the Thought We Hate.”5 

I described in the last post the rise of the Jewish culture that happened in Germany in the 19th century. The same rise, of course, happened to Jewish immigrants in American culture in the 20th century. I believe the latter rise—which I know much more intimately the the German one—is instructive and I will focus on their rise with regard to Wagner’s chief area of concern, art. 

To say that Jews—2% of America’s population—are overrepresented in the field of entertainment, and particularly the power-broker side of the field, is to vastly understate the fact. While it is not true that “Jews control Hollywood,” as an anti-Semite would state it, it is true that a number of Jewish immigrants did, in fact, create and control the vast majority of what became known as Hollywood for many years, before the rise of modern conglomerate corporations. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Here are the names associated with early Hollywood: Mayer, Goldwyn, Fox, the four Warner brothers, Zukor, Lammele, Loew, Harry Cohn, Disney and Zanuck. Only the latter two weren’t Jewish. 

And that’s just the Hollywood moguls; Jews have also been far over-represented as writers, directors, actors, etc. in movies and TV. See here or here to get a sense of this. They are also over-represented in the theater and in music, for example Tin Pan Alley and classical music.

In this tongue-in-cheek—but truthful—column in the Los Angeles Times, Joel Stein argued that Jews do control Hollywood, but talked to Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, for his chance to rebut and gave this report:

That's a very dangerous phrase, ‘Jews control Hollywood.’ What is true is that there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, he said. Instead of ‘control,’ Foxman would prefer people say that many executives in the industry “happen to be Jewish,” as in “all eight major film studios are run by men who happen to be Jewish.

Just “happens to be Jewish.” Ha! To claim it is some sort of random event is totally disingenuous, and the ADL should be ashamed of pushing that nonsense, which they know full well to be incorrect. The Times article makes that point well. For the early history of Hollywood, read the book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood.

It is important to mention that the moguls, who were all “Jew-ish,” went out of their way to put nothing remotely Jewish in most films, to the point it had problematic aspects itself, but that is a long story and you can read about it in the book referenced above if interested.

I am incredibly happy about their great abilities and success in the cultural realm; I can’t imagine America—and don’t want to—without Jewish participation. I am, in fact, bitterly disappointed that we didn’t throw our borders open to Jews during the Nazi era so that we would have had more Jewish immigration, and saved many Jews from the Holocaust. It’s a gift indeed that so many in the Jewish culture are inclined to the arts; a large share of my favorite works—yes, very disproportionately —were created by Jews.6   

Clearly, I don't agree with Wagner on this issue, but given what I outlined above, if Wagner came back today and surveyed the entertainment industry, he would say: “See, I was right.” Wagner did, in fact, perceive something that was true in the Jewish culture—what I summarized as hyper-competence. He was right that a large sub-group of Jews had both the ability and inclination to develop mass entertainment. He was right that, per capita, they were better at —or more inclined to pursue it—than other groups.

However, I think Wagner’s central ideas about art, while passionately held and with some wonderful results in his music, were half-baked. Even if Jews hadn’t been a part of Germany, his vision was a pipe dream. Mass entertainment would have come, with or without Jews, because that is what people want. It may well have been quite different, but I am pretty confident that whatever form it took, Wagner would have hated it. Just as Marx’s fatal flaw in analyzing capitalism is not understanding how much people like stuff, Wagner’s fatal flaw was not understanding how much people like to be entertained. There was no way, no how—and I am happy about this as much as I love his music—his vision was going to happen.

My bottom-line argument is, given what his very passionate beliefs were, his anti-Semitism was inevitable and had logic. That said, the logic was twisted by prejudice, paranoia and his mean streak. However, that isn’t the end of the story. He had a wonderful, kind and generous side, too.  That part of him wanted his art to be redemptive to all humanity, Jews included. This never-resolved tension between his good-side universalism and his bad-side anti-Semitism will be taken up later.

End Notes

1 As quoted in Steele, Ronald, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, 191-192 
2 You can find different theories of Jewish success by just going through these links.
3 Google has obviously been contacted about this problem, so they have created this by way of explanation.
4 If you say that Jews have had great success, neo-Nazis will say that this was done by a variety of illegitimate means.  If you discuss the history of pogroms, expulsions, etc, they will say this proves everybody hates Jews.  And so forth. There is NOTHING that one can say about Jews, good or bad, that won't be used in a twisted way against them on these sites. I trust Americans on this one to not go down that road. That said, I do think that anti-Semitism in the Middle East is an alarming threat, but way too complicated to discuss here.  
5 Gerry Gunther, who was a family friend, wrote this piece to argue against hate speech codes at the university, in this case Stanford. I couldn't find a full version of it on the Internet, but this link gives you the beginning of it, and you can follow the steps to read the whole thing if so inclined. 
6 As I was writing this, just as an interesting exercise, I found a couple of lists I wrote of my 10 favorite TV shows and favorite movies. Then I researched the creator(s) of them.
My favorite TV shows in historical order: Superman, Leave it to Beaver, Dick Van Dyke, Twilight Zone, Bewitched, That Girl, Mary Tyler Moore, the original Bob Newhart Show, Family, L.A. Law, Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Alias, Once and Again, Sopranos, Six Feet Under, The Wire. Of those, only four were not created by Jews (in the case of Leave it to Beaver, in partnership with a non-Jew). The non-Jewish created shows: That Girl, Sopranos, Six Feet Under and, maybe, Frasier.
My favorite movies: Groundhog Day, Fargo, Best in Show, American President, All about Eve, The Empire Strikes Back, The Wizard of Oz, Special Bulletin, Modern Romance, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Of those, only three weren’t created by Jews: Mr Smith, Empire Strikes Back, Wizard of Oz.

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's 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.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Anti-Semitism—Part 4: Tribalism

Brief introduction

The first part of this post is about tribalism in general followed by a short exploration of Wagner’s “tribe” in the second part. If it hasn’t become clear, I am using Wagner’s anti-Semitism to explore various aspects of his views and the phenomenon itself in much broader detail than is normally—ever?—the case in writing about him.  This reflects my belief that Wagner, while in some ways a sport (in the biological sense) in his creativity and hyperactivity, is also very normally human—ultimately just like you or me—in both the good and bad senses.  Thus this whole blog is a dual exercise. While I explore the good, bad and ugly in him, I also explore it in myself, and all of us.

On tribalism

The New York Times education section had a very interesting article, “Rituals and Traditions; It Takes a Tribe,” on the irrational development of the feeling of school loyalty with a concomitant dislike of the rival team, which is essentially a form of tribalism.  According to the article, “For social scientists, it's an object of research, offering clues to a fundamental and puzzling aspect of human nature: People need to belong, to feel a part of “us.”  Yet a sense of '”us” brings with it a sense of “them.”’

In the article, Harvard social scientist Mahzarin Banaji said of this mental processes of becoming one of a group,  “We know that human beings identify with social groups, sometimes sufficiently to kill or die on their behalf.  What is not as well known is that such identity between self and group can form rapidly, often following a psychological route that is relatively subconscious. That is, like automata, we identify with the groups in which we are accidentally placed.'”

Even though liking a sporting team or your school should be trivial, it is not necessarily so.  Ask any Giants fan who has dared to show his team’s colors at Dodger stadium or visa versa.  The story of Brian Stow1, who was beaten and nearly killed at Dodger stadium just because he had on Giants gear is a particularly horrific example, but I have heard many scary stories of what can and does happen when showing that you are the “other” in a rival’s stadium.  In our 28 years together, Leslie and I have had more conflict over the fact that I am a Dodger fan and she is a Giants fan than any other single thing.  Isn’t that absurd?  (In Leslie’s defense—and to my shame—she likes them both and can’t understand why I am so nuts on the issue.  I can’t either, but social scientists tell me that it is normal, nonetheless.)

This tendency to group ourselves is overwhelming and a part of the human condition.  We can’t change it; the best we can do is be aware of it and try to tread as lightly as possible.

For me, I consciously identify with various groups, such as women, lesbians, “blue state people, secular humanists.  For each of those there is the “other,” that I do not like—sexist men, homophobic people, “red state people, religious fundamentalists.  But that list—and a counter “other” list—could be much longer.  The fact is that if something bad happens to people whom I perceive to be in a rival tribe, I don’t tend to feel much, if any, empathy or even sympathy towards them (except for people I actually know).  For instance, when this far-right guy committed suicide in Notre Dame to protest gay marriage in France, I had neither emotion.  Instead, I rolled my eyes and thought something along the lines of “good riddance.”  Yet he was a human being, with family and friends who are now suffering, and with a cause that he felt was just and right.   But he is out of my empathetic circles, and battling against my self-interest.  I really can’t find it in my heart to care about him.

I feel very confident that you can come up with your own list. I try to be a good person, and to me part of that is maintaining, to the degree possible, the sense of the humanity of those from whom I am deeply divided.  But to love your “enemy” is a very, very tough thing to do. 

I like to think I am a citizen of the world, and not deeply “American.” But I admit, America is my team, right or wrong.  When the Boston bombing happened, I absolutely—and quite irrationally—felt much more empathy than I do for a terrorist bombing in, for instance, Iraq.  I read a lot and talked a lot and felt very bad for those affected by the Boston bombing though I knew no one involved; I barely notice articles about terrorist bombings in countries I have never visited. Yet, unlike the Notre Dame guy, these people are not even in a hated “other” category; they are just not in my tribe.

Tribalism is deeply part of being human.  It comes with good and bad aspects.  One of the good things, paradoxically, is that we don’t tend to have run-away empathy.  That is, we save our emotional reactions for those whom we have accepted as part of “us.”  The closer they are, the more empathy.  But, in general, it isn’t too much for most of us to handle most of the time.  Those people who do have hyper-empathy lead very difficult lives, and it is considered a disorder with good reason. 

I want to take a quick look at one of the predominant tribal divides in the United States now:  the so-called blue state/red state divide.2  These names were coined by David Brooks in the Atlantic article, “One State, Slightly Divisible.” 

Watch this anti-Howard Dean ad, which does a good job of stereotyping us blue-staters:

The text for the ad above, for those who prefer to read, is: “Howard Dean should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.”

Humorist Dave Barry talked about the divide this way: “Do we truly believe that ALL red-state residents are ignorant racist fascist knuckle-dragging NASCAR-obsessed cousin-marrying roadkill-eating tobacco-juice-dribbling gun-fondling religious fanatic rednecks or that ALL blue-state residents are godless unpatriotic pierced-nose Volvo-driving France-loving left-wing communist latte-sucking tofu-chomping holistic-wacko neurotic vegan weenie perverts?”3

We all know that there is (though greatly exaggerated) truth within those stereotypes.  There is a real divide of values.  Blue state folks are much more secular.  The lion’s share of the atheists in the country identify with team blue. We believe in the value of multi-culturalism, rights for women and gays, and scientific knowledge.  Red state folks tend to want “traditional values,” which means women as the homemaker when there are kids, nuclear families as the ideal, faith over science if they clash, non-whites in “their place” (though that “place” is much more expansive at this point than it was 50 years ago), and for Christian values and Euro-American culture to predominate.

These are broad strokes I am brushing; nuance isn’t possible in a short post.  But I think most people will agree that we have these two different trends in America – one more a development out of and following of enlightenment ideals, and one more a continuation of religious tradition.

I am very solidly “blue state” and do think that “red state” folks are wrong and should be opposed in writing and at the ballot box.  That said, I believe in democracy and I think the majority of  red state folks do too.  As long as they aren’t trying to suppress my views with violence or through subverting democracy, then I understand our differences and try to make peace and find common ground with those on the other side of the divide.  And I think that is true of the majority of other blue-staters, and of most red-staters, too.

However, as we all know, many people are incredibly mean to the other side, hurling insults on the internet or on TV that are often shocking, far meaner and uglier than anything Wagner ever publicly said about Jews.  This is unleashed tribalism, and I find it all very disturbing.   I don’t hate disagreement, but I do hate mean.

Tolerance, even for the intolerant, is a strong value of mine.  In my private life, to close friends, I know I have said many negative and even hateful things about, for instance, religious fundamentalists.  So, yes, I can be mean privately. It blows off steam, really, and I don’t fault myself or anybody for private venting. But I also know that—at least for the last 30 years—I have been consistently publicly respectful and charitable to those with strong religious beliefs that run counter to my self-interest and my vision of a better world.  To not be mean, to find common ground, and to be tolerant to the “other” are all more important to me than pressing my vision of what a better society should be in a way that would upset those with whom I disagree.  Therefore, I am not a self-righteous crusader for my causes, though I used to be.  I realized that being kind is actually better tactically and much better emotionally than being consumed by a burning desire to act forcefully on what I considered—and still consider—just and right.

That we all have groups that are the “other” is inevitable.  That we do not care about them much, if at all, either in sympathy, empathy or action, is also inevitable.  But I do believe how we treat individuals in the “other” group and what we say publicly about the group does indicate much about our character and our vision of a decent, humane society. 

Wagner’s tribe

Wagner’s tribe was Germany, and what a pitiful tribe it was.  Buffeted by centuries of war and, at the turn of the 19th century, French occupation, the states that constituted what is now Germany were historically weak, feudal and backward.  When Wagner was born in 1813, the War of Liberation from France was underway and would successfully throw off the political yoke of the French, but culturally France remained dominate over Germany well into the century.

Wagner wasn’t crazy about his tribe, as he considered that Germany, its people, and its art had been thoroughly degraded through war, conquest and the rise of capitalism. He called Germany “one of the stupidest of all nations,” but yet was bound of it “simply because I happen to speak the nation’s language.”4 To him, language was the key to a people, to the culture. In the essay “Know Thyself,” he puts it this way: “Fatherland, mother-tongue: woe to the man bereft of these!  But what unmeasured happiness to recognize in one’s mother tongue the speech of one’s forefathers.  Through such a tongue our feelings and beholdings stretch back to early Man himself”.5  His mission in life was “to redeem a degenerate branch of our great, human art”6  To do this, he wanted to tap into what he considered to be a dormant “German spirit.”  Wagner gave as an example of that spirit the music and person of Bach: “beautiful and noble [who] came not in the world for the sake of profit, nay, not for the sake of fame and recognition.”7 

Wagner's main cultural antagonists—the “other”—were the Church, particularly the Catholic church, which he considered thoroughly bankrupt of true spirituality; the French, to whom most Germans turned for “high culture;” the economic system, which was dominated by the profit-motive; and the Jews, who did not share the German language, culture, history or spirit, but who were surging into the cultural vacuum that existed in Germany to create entertainment along with profit, both anathema to Wagner.  All these antagonists were a threat to his plans and vision, which was for Art writ large to supplant religion in Germany, and for the profit motive and greed to go by the wayside.

Is it any wonder that Wagner considered himself to be both a “total stranger"8 and at “loggerheads” with the world, considering the breadth of his foes?9 

One thing that people get very wrong on Wagner is that he was a German chauvinist and thought that Germans were superior to other people.  This was not his view. What he wanted was Germany to be both united and to be the  equal with other nations, not weak and backward as it was.  He was an internationalist and had respect for other cultures as long as they didn’t impinge on Germany’s cultural development.  This is the reason he had particular animosity to both the French and the Jews, as he felt both did. As his friend Eduard Devrient wrote in 1848, “a united Germany is no longer enough for him, what he wants is a united Europe, united humanity.”10

It is the tension between his desire for a united humanity and his belief in cultures developing without influence of harmful “others,” that defined his life and his work to the end of his days. When people refer to his anti-Semitism, this is the context for it.  Given his beliefs—whatever you think of them—it was a rational prejudice, as rational as my prejudice against religious fundamentalists. At least I will argue that in a subsequent post.

I also argued above—to repeat myself— that how we treat individuals in the “other” group, and what we say publicly about the group does indicate much about our character and our vision of a decent, humane society.  I think Wagner had clear failings in this realm, though not nearly as horrible as many people assert, which I will also address in future posts.

End Notes

1 Bryan Stow is still struggling from brain damage inflicted in the beating and will never fully recover.  He has recently returned to the town we both live in, Santa Cruz, California.  Here is a recent story about his progress.
2 When using the term, I am talking about a state of mind, not a literal state.  Obviously people of both tribes live in all the states.
3 Barry answers his question:  “Yes.  This is called “diversity,” and it is why we are such a great nation —a nation that has given the world both nuclear weapons and SpongeBob SquarePants.”
5 Wagner, “Know Thyself,” download here
6 Op. Cit, Millington, 648
7 Wagner, “What is German?,” download here
8 Op. cit, Millington, 566
9 See here
10 Spencer, Wagner Remembered, 62