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.


  1. I think that part of RW's dislike of the "Jews" was that they came and infiltrated one's culture or country without becoming part of it. They (and I mean the great collective "THEY" stereotype) not only lacked a common heritage with the host culture/country, but kept their own culture and religion as a separate group. "They" also owned many of the banks, newspapers and theaters - all important to RW, and were often in adversarial positions in regard to him because he couldn't live within his means, he was trying to introduce a new sort of music and new ways of doing operas, and he even wanted the opera houses, mechanics thereof and orchestra placements and contents to be organized differently. He knew what he wanted, and like any artist, wanted to see his art presented as he intended, which was extremely hard for him to accomplish, with so many elements involved. So when he had nothing but hassles with theater owners in order to produce his musical dramas as he wanted, bad reviews in publications, and money troubles, often because he was promised returns from events that never materialized or which were handled badly, he got very-very frustrated.

    If he had just been anti-semitic he would have been like many others of his day, but of course RW had to publish his views, not only once, but twice. He was not one to suffer in silence. Otherwise, like the rest of us he probably judged people, Jewish and otherwise, by his relationships with individuals, and he did have those close relationships with Jewish friends and colleagues. He said that he never forgot it when anyone treated him well, and he was generous to a fault with people he liked, which was another reason why he couldn't live within his means. When it was Christmas, he had a "Christmas" for each good friend, showering them with gifts - often expensive gifts. So I think that anyone, including Jews, who treated him well was OK in his book.

    However, more to a fault, he resented Jews like Meyerbeer who were very successful in opera in the way that he wanted to be accepted and successful, and even though he may have been helped in his quest by some of these people, when he met with opposition in being accepted and successful he then also sometimes blamed them, as though they were two-faced and had been secretly working against him.

    The only thing I can say about this is that he apparently needed adversaries, real or suspected, to fire himself up in order to achieve the things he was trying to do, and the positive aspects of his personality, which really were considerable, were balanced with a negative side which took on a life of it's own after his death.