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Sunday, July 31, 2005

An intellectual disease

Anti-semitism is not "a form of racism or ethnic xenophobia," says that outstanding historian and writer, Paul Johnson. It is "an intellectual disease, a disease of the mind, extremely infectious and massively destructive. It is a disease to which both human individuals and entire human societies are prone." In a fine essay in Commentary, Johnson writes:
What strikes the historian surveying anti-Semitism worldwide over more than two millennia is its fundamental irrationality. It seems to make no sense, any more than malaria or meningitis makes sense. In the whole of history, it is hard to point to a single occasion when a wave of anti-Semitism was provoked by a real Jewish threat (as opposed to an imaginary one). In Japan, anti-Semitism was and remains common even though there has never been a Jewish community there of any size.

Asked to explain why they hate Jews, anti-Semites contradict themselves. Jews are always showing off; they are hermetic and secretive. They will not assimilate; they assimilate only too well. They are too religious; they are too materialistic, and a threat to religion. They are uncultured; they have too much culture. They avoid manual work; they work too hard. They are miserly; they are ostentatious spenders. They are inveterate capitalists; they are born Communists. And so on. In all its myriad manifestations, the language of anti-Semitism through the ages is a dictionary of non-sequiturs and antonyms, a thesaurus of illogic and inconsistency.
As I begin reading this essay, it struck me that Communism, in its "fundamental irrationality," might also be called a disease then. And indeed, Johnson makes an analogy with it later in his piece when he invokes the confirmation bias that believers (or patients?) display. He writes:
Irrational thinking is common enough in each of us; when anti-Semitism is added in, irrational thinking becomes not only instinctual but systemic. An experienced anti-Semite constantly looks for “evidence” to confirm his idée fixe, and invariably finds it—just as a Marxist, looking for “proof,” constantly uncovers events that confirm his diagnosis of how the world works. (Not surprisingly, anti-Semitic theory as evolved by the young Hegelians played a major role in the evolution of Marx’s methods of analysis.)
Johnson's piece contains a number of interesting historical observations, such as the view that Hitler's anti-semitism was "an obstacle to electoral victory" that "repelled more voters than it attracted". Johnson uses Hitler as an illustration of how the disease can be self-perpetuating:
So central was anti-Semitism to his view of the world that the repugnance of others merely confirmed, for him, the existence of the very Jewish conspiracy against which he had warned for many years. It was this same conspiracy, he threatened, that would be to blame for any war that might break out, and this war would in turn provide both occasion and justification for implementing his “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.”
Johnson ends the essay by writing that anti-Americanism shares many qualities with anti-Semitism. He writes:
That anti-Americanism shares many structural characteristics with anti-Semitism is plain enough. In France, as we read in a new study, intellectuals muster as many contradictory reasons for attacking the U.S. as for attacking Jews. Americans are excessively religious; they are excessively materialistic. They are vulgar money-grubbers; they are vulgar spenders. They hate culture; they are pushy in promoting their own culture. They are aggressive and reckless; they are cowardly. They are stupid; they are exceptionally cunning. They are uneducated; they subordinate everything in life to the goal of sending their children to universities. They build soulless megalopolises; they are rural imbeciles. As with anti-Semitism, this litany of contradictory complaints is fleshed out with demonic caricatures of particular individuals like George W. Bush. Just as 14th-century Christians once held the Jews responsible for the Black Death, Americans are blamed for all the ills of today’s world, starting with (real or imaginary) global warming. Particularly among French intellectuals, such demonization has become almost a culture, a way of life, in itself.
For more on the subject of anti-Americanism, a couple of books I'd recommend are "Occidentalism" by Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit, and "Understanding Anti-Americanism", edited by Paul Hollander. Here's a review of the latter book by Victor Davis Hansen, in which he writes:
Indeed, it is almost as if people hate what they have become, aping American slang and informality and then decrying the erosion of global etiquette. Scapegoating America allows one in the concrete to enjoy jeans, birth-control pills, antibiotics, and video games, even while damning in the abstract the purveyor of both junk and life-saving appurtenances.
The world is so polarised, of course, that all of this is just preaching to the converted. Pity.
amit varma, 11:48 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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