…I could do worse than turn to someone who calls themselves a Jewish atheist. Some of them seem to find an easy affinity with the best teachings of Jesus.
Why not? Jesus, the itinerant rabbi, didn’t preach anything that wasn’t preached by the best of his predecessors in ancient Judea. Jesus was as Jewish as Yom Kippur. These Jewish atheists (their own self-designation) are simply acting in the tradition of Isaiah and the other prophets who railed against injustice and hatred and hollow ritual.
But it’s Jesus as often as Isaiah that today’s prophets quote to express how they feel. The most recent example of this I found in a column by Matthew Norman in the British Independent.
“In his last Easter message, the PM reminded us that this is a Christian country. ‘Across Britain, Christians don’t just talk about ‘loving thy neighbour’,” he said. ‘They live it out.’
“As an atheist Jew with no theological training, I may be on weak ground picking a fight with this dedicated churchgoer about what the guy he worships on Sundays meant by
‘loving they neighbour as thyself’. Perhaps Jesus was speaking literally about the person in the next house. The one with the latest model Lexus in the driveway.
“And yet, having attended the church attached to my school four times a week for several years, I have the nagging sense that ‘thy neighbour’ actually meant ‘everyone else’; a vague feeling that when, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said ‘Blessed are the merciful’, the mercy in mind stretches to victims of monstrous civil wars who endure unimaginable horror to give their children a chance at having less gruesome lives.”
Noam Chomsky is also fond of quoting the gospels, citing their “preferential treatment for the poor” and praising Pope John XXIII. (He also doesn’t hesitate to name a more recent pontiff as co-conspirator in the murder of Liberation Theology priests and even a bishop.) I don’t think this affinity for the gospels is because Chomsky was secretly baptized as a newborn by his Irish nursemaid, any more than I believe Matthew Norman’s humaneness is the result of his subjection to four days a week of Christian propaganda during his
formative years. Otherwise the Fundamentalist Christian wet dream of converting “the Jews” would have been accomplished simply by bombarding Jewish neighborhoods with Christian tracts.
What I think is going on is a response that is natural to human beings when they find themselves in a position of freedom from religious cant, whether Christian, Jewish or other, and have a warmly beating heart in their breasts. To be sure, such freedom does not affect everyone this way. There are plenty of atheists who are out-and-out monsters. I just happen to keep coming across the Matthew Normans and Noam Chomskys. Long may they flourish!
“Most good history does this, stands the standard narrative on its head, whether it’s Colin Calloway’s books about American Indians, Ilan Pappe’s revisions of official Israeli history or contemporary accounts of slavery in the American South by Frederick Law Olmsted. Noam Chomsky does it for just about any modern period of American history, and any number of younger journalists like Glenn Greenwald, Max Blumenthal, and Jeremy Scahill, to name just three, are busy correcting the official lies we are fed on a daily basis. It’s a good time for truth….”
My latest at Eclectica.
The Israeli historian Shlomo Sand has made some interesting observations about the current status of Muslims in Europe. He says that for 100 years (roughly 1850-1950) Jews were used as the alien threat to the national integrity of newly emerging nations there. Anti-semitism or, as he more accurately calls it, Judeophobia, arose at the same time strong nationalistic movements were coming to a head. The national myths which accompanied those nationalisms (Sand, quoting Ernest Renan among others, would say the myths actually created those national identities) harkened back to a fictional ur-people – Gauls, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons, Romans – from which the present population derives its identity and its peculiar character. Jews, in the mid-19th century seen for the first time as a race rather than just as a religion, did not fit into these narratives. In fact, they provided convenient enemies, threats from within to the purity of the national identity, a “sang impure,” to quote from the Marseillaise.
This fantasy of a homogeneous people played itself out most dramatically in the brutal stupidity of Nazism and other less comprehensive attacks on Jews throughout most of Europe, especially in those more easterly parts of the continent where blood – what we would now call genes – determined which nation-state you belonged to. In the west, France and England for instance, citizenship became a matter of choice rather than birth. But even in the west animus against Jews continued on an unofficial level.
By mid-twentieth century, Sand maintains, this wave of anti-semitism had played itself out. Jews became what they had always been in the West: French, British, Americans who happened to practice a different religion. It’s not that everyone suddenly started loving Jews, but official, state-authorized discrimination against them disappeared. In some places (France and Germany, e.g.) speech hateful of Jews became illegal. The idea in Europe of a “Judeo-Christian” culture took root.
But the notion, however fanciful, of a national bloodline for many people has persisted to this day. Foreigners – North Africans in France, Turks in Germany – have taken the place of Jews as the unassimilated alien, a kind of fifth column whose intentions are suspect at best, terroristic at worst. And, unlike the Jews of the nineteenth century in western Europe, they do not live among other French and Germans but in ghettos, the suburbs of Europe that correspond to America’s “inner cities.” Unassimilated, ill-educated and in France accounting for six times their percentage of the population in the prisons, they are seen as aliens even to the second and third generations. And, simply by the fact of their being Muslim they are associated with violent extremist groups like Al Qaeda, though very few actually become operatives for such organizations.
Ergo Charlie Hebdo, a publication that feels no qualms about degrading everything Muslim, including and especially what Muslims consider sacred. Only French casuistry can make the kind of arguments that have recently been made by and on behalf of that publication, portraying it as an equal-opportunity lampooner that it is only upholding the rights of unfettered speech fought for by the likes of Voltaire. Even a cursory look at the cover cartoons of Charlie Hebdo over the last few years indicates something more (or less) than good-humored, not to say intelligent, satire. And even 3.7 million French marching lockstep and carrying “Je suis Charlie!” signs (led by some of the world’s worst persecutors of free speech) doesn’t negate the despicable Islamophobia displayed in that publication. In fact, those 3.7 million French are proof of the dearth of rational thought, never mind toleration, in that country. Noam Chomsky, well before the Charlie massacre, pointed out that France has a very bad record of freedom of the press. Massive crowds of self-styled liberals marching in defense of massive prejudice and massive bad taste doesn’t prove otherwise.
Popular perception of social phenomenon may be like its understanding of new scientific ideas. It’s said to require fifty years for a new concept like Relativity or Quantum Theory to enter the public consciousness. It’s just about fifty years since state-approved Judeophobia disappeared. How long will it take before we recognize that Islamophobia is just as ignorant and shallow a prejudice as vilification of Jews? Or that it serves a purpose as feral as the one provided by that earlier prejudice? We like to think we are beyond certain types of thinking and behavior. Yet, has anything essential changed about us thanks to the twentieth century’s bloodbaths? Look around. I still see nation-states paying lip service to international law while operating in the same fashion as the worst actors of the last century. I also see my neighbors, by which I mean most of the world, stuck in the same uninformed mindsets as their parents and grandparents, only with different prejudices and rationalizations tailored to conform to the accepted prejudices and rationalizations around them. What we are seeing play out today in Europe looks a lot like the old anti-semitism with a new victim as its scapegoat.
Is this the best we can do? A march to defend the right of high-octane bigots to throw fuel on the fires of an already festering anti-Muslim bigotry in the land that gave us the Enlightenment? Diderot would be outraged. Voltaire, who is indeed in the first rank of those defending the rights of even the most outrageous use of free speech, would be firing off letters to the editor, denouncing Charlie Hebdo. Do we have to make the comparison with what public opinion would have made of a gang of Jews angered by anti-semitic cartoons in Der Stuermer in 1934 storming into the editorial offices with Tommy guns and wasting most of the staff? Would 3.7 million Germans marching the next day to uphold freedom of the press seem as laudable as the march led by that front line of hypocrites and the million people carrying Je suis Charlie signs behind them?
Not a fair comparison? Maybe, maybe not. But don’t kid yourself into thinking something basic has changed about human nature in the last eighty years. Fear of the other still runs as deep as it ever did, as does the herd instinct – even in la belle France.
When I was eleven or twelve years old my parents took a ride out to Levittown on Long Island to visit my mother’s oldest brother Martin, a retired New York City police officer. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, Levittown was then a brand-new community of 17,500 units of lower middle income, no-frills housing, one of several such projects constructed by the Levitt family during the housing boom following the end of the second world war. What I also didn’t realize was that Levittown was for whites only, not segregated by secret covenants but openly so in the public record and in the deeds themselves.
Now, thanks to a study recently published by Richard Rothstein at the Economic Policy Institute, I also know that what happened in Levittown was for many decades common practice throughout the United States, sanctioned, indeed encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration inaugurated under the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The FHA mandated that housing developments it stood behind — and for decades most new developments required FHA backing — had to be racially segregated in order to receive federal assistance.
Shocking as this sounds simply as historical fact and moral shame, the consequences of this federal policy, along with similar state and municipal restrictions, are directly related to the present conditions of African Americans, including the recent killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.
Home ownership is the single greatest source of wealth for most Americans. Appreciation in the value of the family residence is the financial springboard from which all the other economic and thence social achievements are made. It provides equity with which to send children to college and also makes available to them a nest egg with which they can purchase homes of their own and continue the cycle of wealth. Homeownership also comes with a tax write-off for interest paid on the mortgage, and interest can ultimately add up to more than the original principal. Renters receive no such tax write-off.
African American income is 60% of white income. African-American wealth is 5% of white wealth. Both those percentages reflect deliberate public federal, state and municipal legislation and policies that were in effect from the early 1930s until very recent times. They also explain, along with other policies and regulations put into effect by cities and states throughout the United States, both North and South, why some neighborhoods are all-white and others all-black. Indeed, Prof. Rothstein maintains that any “mixed-race” neighborhood” is actually a neighborhood in transition, going either from black to white or white to black. New York City, where I live, is reputed to be the most diverse metropolitan area in the United States if not in the world. It is also said to be the most segregated of American cities.
Initially, at the beginning of the 20th century, blacks and whites both lived in the so-called inner cities. Whites were lured out of those inner cities by the promise of affordable, racially homogeneous private housing developments in the suburbs with all the benefits, such as superior educational institutions, that come with that environment. African Americans were left behind, indeed restricted to neighborhoods that quickly deteriorated into ghettos and slums, with all the social disadvantages that come with that environment. Later, when whites rediscovered the positive aspects of city living, African Americans were forced out of their slums to make way for the gentrification process. Today, old suburbs like Ferguson, Missouri – originally white until it became convenient to rehouse urban African-Americans there — have become the new slums, sandwiched in between a white exurb and a white-gentrifying inner city.
In order to preserve the racial and economic superiority first of the suburbs, now of the exurbs, zoning regulations were rewritten to prohibit the alteration of homes in white neighborhoods that would allow less affluent buyers and renters to move into those neighborhoods. Meanwhile, older suburbs into which African-Americans were crowded were rezoned as industrial areas, meaning houses could be subdivided and industry could locate there, insuring that public services like schools would be underfunded and that the same environment that had bred crime in the inner-city slums, whether inhabited by African-Americans, Irish, Jews, Italians or any other group, would provide the same social instability that gave rise to antisocial or even criminal behavior by some in those communities.
Three of my mother’s brothers became New York City police officers. I don’t believe any of them finished high school. They got their jobs because they were white and Irish-American. After twenty years service they could retire with generous pensions. In the meantime their income allowed them to buy modest homes in white suburban communities. Their children enjoyed all the economic and social advantages of growing up in those communities and had career options available to them that their fathers never had, never mind what was available to African American children of that generation.
The airwaves and other media in New York these days are full of self-congratulatory tales of public protests and the usual hand-wringing self-righteousness about “racism.” But racism, at least as we generally understand it, is not at the heart of what happened in Ferguson or Staten Island or Cleveland and before that to Trayvon Martin in Florida. “Racism,” like “anti-Semitism,” is a word we use all too frequently to avoid more serious thinking. We accept them as givens, we compare them to viruses that inhabit the body politic and its members, like herpes, becoming indolent but then breaking out again with frightening virulence. Rothstein makes reference to the use of the term “de facto segregation,” which is also a misrepresentation of the facts on the ground. Segregation, past and present, is not de facto, it’s de jure. It isn’t the result of a natural antipathy between people of African and non-African descent. Its roots are economic and social and anything but accidental.
For the most part, so-called white people do not react to African-Americans out of racist attitudes, though those attitudes may be very negative and prejudiced as a result of the image portrayed of African Americans in our culture as well as because of valid personal experience. Someone who fears an African American in a situation in which they would not fear someone with a complexion similar to their own is not a racist on that account. Confusing racism with the consequences of deliberate public policy only exacerbates the problem and alienates the very people who most need and are usually willing to entertain a reasonable explanation for how we ended up in this mess.
I don’t see any way out of it short of a massive initiative comparable to the denazification and economic resuscitation of Germany following the second world war. We undertook that project not for altruistic reasons but because we wanted Western Germany as an ally in our confrontation with the Soviet Union. We have no such motivation to make whole our African-American population. We no longer feel the immediacy of the holocaust of slavery. In fact, many among us are tired of what they perceive as an extended effort taken in the best of faith to afford African Americans full civic and social rights. When they see young people rioting on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri even some of the most liberal among us begin to wonder if their efforts were worth it.
This is a reasonable reaction, not racism, to the lies we have been fed by our government, our educational institutions and our media. Because African Americans have not done what the Irish, Germans, Italians, Jewish Eastern Europeans and, more recently, Asians have done — i.e. enter into the mainstream after a period of social marginalization and even demonization — we have come to believe, if only subconsciously, that African Americans are a case apart. Without being racists we have come to accept the same kind of thinking that informs real racism. What we do not take into account, largely because there is a society-wide blackout on the kind of information Mr. Rothstein provides in his study, is that African-American experience in America is indeed a case apart, not because they have failed to respond to the opportunities other groups took advantage of when they became available but because those opportunities never did become available to them thanks to a century of deliberate public policy throughout United States.
(For a concise and striking summary of the Rothstein report, I suggest you listen to this interview conducted with him by Mitch Jeserich at KPFA. It runs about 25 minutes.)
Instead of calling for more “conversations about race” and more marches against police brutality, it’s time we learned why the killing in Ferguson was inevitable and will continue to be so until we make up for deliberate, explicit federal policy (most of it inaugurated under FDR).
For a tight, appalling summary, listen to this interview with the author (Richard Rothstein) of the study linked to below. It only runs about half an hour, but I bet for most of us it is the most eye-opening information on the subject we will ever experience: http://www.kpfa.org/archive/id/109042
(From my Salon piece in the October/November issue of Eclectica)
I’ve remarked more than once in print and in personal conversation that maybe our societies should be run by primatologists. I can’t remember ever getting a response to this remark. Presumably it’s taken as a joke or at least as a dismissible exaggeration. When I verbalize the idea in person it inevitably draws a blank stare.
I wonder sometimes what those reactions, or lack thereof, imply. Is my suggestion, always expressed in the context of a discussion of human behavior and the restraints we expect ourselves to exert over it, just not taken seriously? Is it beyond the pale of permissible thought that we who share so much with other primates genetically, socially and, if the recent science is any indication, cognitively, ought to investigate ourselves with the same objectivity we study chimpanzees?…
I still marvel at how my mind-brain works. I’m convinced each brain is different and that there is no such thing as a “normal” brain. But you would think after so many years my own would at least be familiar to me.
Not so. It still perplexes, sometimes seems downright alien. The difference in my more mature years (my mother said Hubschman men mature late, but this is ridiculous), is that I do marvel or at least am bemused rather than angered or depressed by its fickleness.
What I’m talking about is the way I seem to experience one kind of mind for a period of time – a few days or a week – and then pass on, quite unexpectedly, to a different one with all the appetites and aversions a new mentality involves.
It’s tempting to say what I experience is a matter of one side of my brain taking over for a while, then losing interest and yielding to the other side. What puzzles me is why this happens. Why am I enthusiastic for a new piece of writing I’ve just started, thinking about it the last thing before I go to sleep and the first thing after I wake up in the morning, and then suddenly become apathetic about it? How can I spend a day busily taken up with that new project and wake to find it may as well be something someone else is writing and about a topic in which I have no particular interest?
What do I do when this happens? Well, apart from the self-recriminations I used to plague myself with, what I did in my younger years was listen to music. And not just listen, but listen. I would find my mind as eager, as hungry for musical sounds as it had been for the written word. I devoured one symphony after another. I found pleasure in jazz performances that used to leave me cold.
This would go on for a few days, and then something would switch off in my gray matter and the next day another part of that organ would switch on. I’d be back to making sentences, or at least rewriting them, and taking pleasure once again in reading someone else’s.
The difference is that nowadays, since I’ve taken up the piano, instead of just listening to other people’s performances I make music myself – sort of. I experience that delicious feeling thatresults from hearing Chopin or Brahms come out of the tips of my fingers and then reach deep inside and massage my soul the way nothing else can. Then, in a few days, I’m back to making sentences again.
Does my right (or is left?) brain just get tired of words, overdose on them, and turn off in favor of the left side the way it yields up consciousness to a different state when it has had enough of the real world for while? And then does the left side feel glutted and switch off in favor of its other half?
These alternating brain functions obviously have a restorative function. Ideas for a story work themselves through even as my pencil (virtual or otherwise) lies dormant and I worry it will never rise again. And despite the old saw about the need to practice every day, I find after a couple days away from the piano (also virtual) I not only remember better the few pieces I can play than if I had taken no time off, I play them with more understanding and deeper feeling.
I know, of course, there’s nothing unique to me about any of this. I have friends whose habits are not as up-and-down as my own, who do the same work each day without any loss of will as far as I can see. And I know almost everyone has their ups and downs, their periods of enthusiasm and despondency. My own alternations simply occur in areas of activity that are easily identifiable and open to theorizing (in words, of course).
To put a positive spin on it, my brain may just belong to a subset typical of artists. No doubt it served a function in the evolution of the species, as has the brain of my neighbor whose apartment is never clean enough or clutter-free enough to suit him.
Hopefully, it still does.
Thoughts on the heightened sensitivity that comes with age. My latest, in the new issue of Eclectica.