If you saw the Atlantic’s hair-raising video of Richard Spencer talking at an American neo-Nazi “conference” that celebrated Donald Trump’s victory, then you saw Spencer bash “the mainstream media,” calling them “leftists and cucks,” “genuinely stupid,” and liars. He also “wonders” if “these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem, animated by some dark power, to repeat whatever talking point John Oliver stated the night before.”
The words “Jew” or “Jewish” were not mentioned in the speech, but this nudge-nudge, wink-wink form of anti-Semitism was quickly deciphered: CNN ran a controversial banner inferring that “these people” are Jews and therefore, “Alt-Right Founder Questions If Jews Are People.”
The golem allusion enabled this quick leap, since the golem has been traditionally presented as a Jewish creation, the artificial servant/protector of a rabbi. Astonishingly, Spencer’s manipulative non-naming reference to “these people,” which alluded back to the mainstream media, led to the absurdity of the press’s own anti-Semitic blunder.
In an even more bewildering twist of affairs, Spencer wields here the very same golem metaphor that was previously used by the media to describe Trump’s growing power and uncontrollable “rampage” during the presidential campaign. Journalists have declared Trump the GOP’s golem, an animated clay monster that, fed by media exposure, threatens to crush its creators by refusing to conform to party lines. Others even contended that Trump is a golem created by the media that previously fawned over him, endowing him with considerable airtime, and that now seeks to undo the damage, utterly denouncing him.
Spencer turns the tables on the media in his speech, casting it in the role of the golem. He alludes to an unspecified “dark power” that animates this golem so that its automatic repetition of supposed lies appears evil, not just dim-witted. He also uses the golem in the singular in conjunction with “people” in the plural, and this ungrammatical usage bolsters his notion that the press is one giant monster, a mass of undifferentiated journalists controlled, perhaps, by leftist-leaning politicians. In his speech, the golem metaphor itself has run amok, turning against its media creators.
If mainstream media is one of Spencer’s arch-opponents, then his strategy is to take its rhetoric and metaphors and remold them in his own image. There is historical precedent for this: 17th and 18th century Christian European scholars composed their versions of the golem story as proof that Jews trade in black magic and sorcery, and are subsequently punished and even killed by their clay servant. These narratives have continued to circulate — including through the mediation of Jacob Grimm — in German literature and beyond, competing with the better-known “Golem of Prague” narrative.
What is unprecedented and dangerous in Spencer’s recent evocation of the golem is his attempt not only to frame the media but also to dehumanize its practitioners. They lack, for him, a “soul,” and cannot be considered “people.” Those journalists who previously accused Trump of golemhood underscored his monstrosity, but they never explicitly denied him of personhood. They also alluded to one particular leader, not to an entire (professional) group of people.
I am reminded, nonetheless, of how the fiction of the golem terrorized the Nazis in 1970s American comic books (see: “Hulk”) and, more recently, in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” The Nazis in these works prefer to believe in an awful golem rumor than to realize that flesh-and-blood Jews are successfully revolting against them. Similarly, Spencer galvanizes his supporters, and Trump’s, through the dual strategy of asserting superiority and spreading fear. It is far more worthy and satisfying, for him and his like, to wage their battle against a dreaded and demonized media.
In the name of the famous Rabbi Loew, who must be turning in his Prague grave, I therefore beseech free journalists to continue doing what they have always done best — to speak “truth” (emet) to Spencer’s message of “death” (met).
Maya Barzilai is an assistant professor of Hebrew literature and Jewish culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her book “Golem: Modern Wars and Their Monsters” appeared with NYU Press in October.