Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Cornel West and the "Jewish Brothers"

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First, sorry for not blogging. I'm just at a point in my life where I don't care too much about rap. It isn't that rap isn't good right now; it is. But major label rap has become so moribund that the only way to stay on top of things is to follow a million tumblrs and listen to mixtapes from a million artists that don't have record deals. I lack both the time and the interest to do that. I do, however, write capsule reviews of pop, and some rap, at thesinglesjukebox.com. You can have fun guessing which of the writers I am.

So Cornel West went on MSNBC last night to be interviewed by a liberal talk radio hack, who was upset that West, in an Internet interview, had criticized Obama for lacking backbone and being the "puppet of corporate plutocrats." I sympathize with those on the left who are disappointed with Obama; from a liberal perspective, his has been a disappointing presidency. However, this is, no matter what people say, a center-right country and I doubt that Obama could have done much more than he did - besides, perhaps, making the stimulus somewhat larger. But even that, you may recall, was very difficult to get passed, even with 60 Democrats in the Senate. He does, of course, have the power to leave Afghanistan, and I do think his staying there is, in large part, attributable to a failure of political courage. But I don't really think that that's why people like West are mad at Obama, though perhaps it should be.

Anyway, when West was asked why he had accused Obama, in a previous interview, of having a "fear of free black men," West replied (about 4 1/2 minutes into the video above) that Obama has "a predilection much more towards upper middle class white brothers and Jewish brothers and has a certain distance from free black men who will tell him the truth both about himself as well as what’s going on in black communities, brown communities, red communities and poor white and working class communities." My initial reaction was that this was shockingly anti-Semitic; otherwise, why single out us "Jewish brothers" when Jewish people, after all, are white people? It all sounded very "teh Jews secretly rule the world." Moreover, this wasn't some weird slip of the tongue, because in the interview that this interview was about, West said the same exact thing, namely that "brother Barack," apparently due to his "Kansas influence [and] loving white grandparents," is frightened by "independent black folk" and "feels most comfortable with upper middle-class white and Jewish men."

These comments are stupid in a typical Cornel West-ian way - West, who started his career as a fairly brilliant philosopher, has spent so many years talking down to an uneducated audience that he seems to have deeducated himself as a result - but I don't think they're anti-Semitic. For, as it turns out, West has this really weird view about Jewishness as an ethnicity, on which Jewish people (or Jewish brothers, if you prefer) are no more "white" than Chinese people are white. Hence, for him, saying that Obama is most comfortable with whites and Jews is like saying that Obama is most comfortable with whites and Asians, as opposed to saying that Obama is most comfortable with whites and a religiously defined sub-set of whites whom, for suspect reasons, West felt like singling out. However, this view, as we'll see, is perhaps even more disturbing than the garden-variety anti-Semitism that it sounded like he was espousing.

Turning to this weird view, West has been rather explicit that Jewish people just aren't white. In a podcast he did for the Holocaust Museum in a series entitled, ironically, 'Voices on Antisemitism' (ironically because some of the views he espouses in the podcast seem fairly anti-Semitic), West actually says, "even if some Jews believe they're white, I think that they're duped." West doesn't claim that Jewish people are somehow genetically non-white; rather, his view is that anti-Semitism is so deeply rooted in Western civilization that Jewish people can never truly become white. Even though, he acknowledges in somewhat queasy terms, Jewish people have "move[d] from underdogs to middle dogs and upper middle dogs, and even a few top dogs at the top of American capitalist civilization," West says that he is "not going to believe the hype," as even in America, "the antisemitism lies just beneath the surface." That is why, he explains, "those like myself who are fundamentally committed to defending the humanity of Jewish brothers or sisters" are constantly reminding those brothers and sisters that they aren't really white and that Jewish brothers who lived in Nazi Germany thought they were safe too. (Yes, he says that.)

As you'll notice, this all seems awfully dissonant. For on West's terms, Jews are a race of "upper middle dogs," "top dogs at the top of American capitalist civilization," and one of the two privileged races that control "brother Barack's" policy decisions. (One might also add that we comprise a third of the Supreme Court in spite of comprising less than 2% of the U.S. population.) On the other hand, this uniquely privileged race, if you insist on calling us one, is, according to West, not white, not because that's the case biologically but because America is still such an anti-Semitic country that it regards us as racially other even though we're no less white than Russians, Italians, etc. It strikes me that, rather than being "fundamentally committed to defending the humanity of Jewish brothers and sisters," West feels a sort of vested interest in the continuation of anti-Semitism even after it's ceased to exist in American life in any important way (though I have no doubt that anti-Semitism is still huge in poor white, and black, communities where most Jewish people would never be caught dead in the first place, just as there are all sorts of powerless places in America where there's anti-white bigotry).

That this is the case is abundantly obvious in his podcast, in which he bemoans the estrangement of "Jewish brothers" from their black brothers and sisters. The way in which he does this is rather revealing. On the one hand, he says, Jewish people did play a huge role in the civil rights movement, and that's great. But then, "on the other hand," America is a place of "unbelievable upward social mobility," and this mobility has led to the "bourgeois-ossification of American Jewry," and this "bourgeois-ossification" has led to tensions between Jewish and black brothers. And it's precisely at this point at which he goes on his rant about Jewish people being duped if they think they're white or are safe in America, because Jewish people in Germany thought the same thing. The implications of all this are terribly clear. West thinks it's an unfortunate thing that Jewish people have succeeded in this country, a success he chooses to give the ugly name of bourgeois-ossification, and continues to view us as a victim of bigotry, in spite of all the evidence that that's not the case, in order to maintain some rhetorical community between Jews and blacks. This is why he insists that Jews aren't really white.

I find this rather pathological. It's understandable to be a little sad about Jewish-black relations, and it's undeniable that a - not the - cause of their declined state is Jewish economic success and black economic stagnation, or rather, a lesser degree of economic success on blacks' part than on our part, as there is a thriving black middle class that's a great deal larger than it was 40 or 50 years ago. (Of course, another cause of the declined quality of Jewish-black relations is black anti-Semitism.) But in the scheme of things, I would accept a decline in Jewish-black relations as the inevitable price of Jewish success and assimilation any day, and anyone who claims to be fundamentally committed to defending Jewish humanity should be happy for our success, rather than delusionally pretending that we didn't cross the line from other to white decades ago out of regret that we're no longer around to be partners in someone else's misery. It's a little like the fat girl who's always telling her formerly fat friend that she could put on 50 pounds at any moment, and that her warnings are just out of deep concern for her good looks. Except I don't believe that there's any fat girl out there crazy or pathetic enough to tell her ex-fat friend that, beneath the veneer of weight loss, everyone still sees her as fat. Then again, there probably is. At least that, though, isn't as egregious as not so subtly hoping for a re-injection of anti-Semitism into American life.


The Great Gats, B said...

Of course you could always write about your recent vintage No Limit discoveries here rather than new rap.

Anonymous said...

That would be really great.

bding7 said...

"I'm just at a point in my life where I don't care too much about rap. It isn't that rap isn't good right now; it is. But major label rap has become so moribund that the only way to stay on top of things is to follow a million tumblrs and listen to mixtapes from a million artists that don't have record deals. I lack both the time and the interest to do that."

yea, i can relate. good to see you writing again.

ghengis blond said...

rad post