Should We Separate ‘Real’ Bigotry from the Armchair Variety?

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum wondered why everyone’s talking about “white supremacy” these days, rather than just talking about “racism.” Had he wondered this, oh, I don’t know, in June, this might have been a contrarian but useful point: In one understanding “white supremacy” is the entire system, encompassing everything from racist beauty standards to mass incarceration. In another, it’s the ideology of self-proclaimed white supremacists. And the activist use of “white supremacy” to mean all forms of racism can be both theoretically useful and, in practical terms, alienating to some who’d otherwise get it.

However. Drum made this point in a November 26 blog post. (And not persuasively, which is another story.) While there’s still an anti-racist case for discussing which rhetorical strategies are most effective, the connection between the white supremacy of casually racist uncles and that of Nazi sympathizers has never been more obvious. Progressive Twitter has collectively pointed out where Drum went wrong: White supremacists, as in the self-proclaimed variety, are in power. Their guy was just elected president! This would seem to make now an odd moment to suggest that those who’ve been speaking about white supremacy have been exaggerating.

But there’s something familiar about this notion of not speaking out too much about bigotry, for fear that doing so will somehow backfire. That it will be seen as crying wolf, or as hysteria, or that it will be overly punitive of people who are actually on the right side, thereby nudging them to the wrong side. It’s familiar to me because that sort of reticence has long guided Jewish discussions of anti-Semitism. It’s a reticence I both participate in and find infuriating.

Just as “racism” is taboo (see Gene Demby), if not a notch more so (though everything’s converging these days), “anti-Semitism” is all too often understood as including only the most out-there variants. Only Nazis and their sympathizers could count! (Or maybe not even them; don’t want to step on any “alt-right” toes.) There’s long been a rhetorical vacuum where discussing non-genocidal anti-Semitism is concerned. For better or worse, we don’t have an expression like “white supremacy” to convey the entire spectrum of anti-Jewish sentiment, from armchairs to rallies.

What winds up happening is, even Jews committed to fighting anti-Semitism devote themselves to spelling out what anti-Semitism “is not.” I’m thinking, of course, about the refrain: that not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism, which, while true, makes it so that anti-Semitism with even the most tenuous and tacked-on “Israel” component has to be discussed with this copious disclaimer. I’m also remembering what I learned in a Jewish Studies course in grad school: that anti-Semitism was around before the Holocaust but can’t be given as the reason for it. And I’m thinking of this analysis from Alana Newhouse’s recent Tablet essay:

“[B]e clear about what anti-Semitism is—and is not. Anti-Semitism is not a social prejudice against Jews; it’s a conspiracy theory. In fact, it’s the oldest and most powerful conspiracy theory in the West. You can be an anti-Semite without being particularly prejudiced against Jews in your personal interactions with them, and you can hold prejudiced views about Jews without being an anti-Semite.”

While I fully agree that anti-Semitism is, at its root, “a conspiracy theory,” I wonder what it means to declare everyday hatred of Jews (ala what Steve Bannon’s ex-wife accused him of) a phenomenon wholly separate from anti-Semitism. No, anti-Semitism isn’t just casual anti-Jewish prejudice, but it’s not not that, either. Why are we giving armchair anti-Semites a pass? Why can’t we find the words to acknowledge the continuity between major and minor forms of any given bigotry, while also avoiding terminology that rounds the minor ones up to the most extreme variety?

Armchair Racism and Anti-Semitism Also Count

Armchair Racism and Anti-Semitism Also Count

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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Should We Separate ‘Real’ Bigotry from the Armchair Variety?

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