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.
This is a story of mine that was broadcast on the BBC World Service in 1996. Back then they had a program to which anyone could submit a short story (by mail) which, if accepted, was broadcast three times over the course of a week. At that time the World Service’s weekly English audience was 30 million. Three broadcasts of the same story reached a large number of people, perhaps as many as a million.
I mention this because I figure the broadcast of “Logging On” as well as another story of mine broadcast a year or so later, “The World,” was and probably will remain the high-water mark in terms of numbers for the audience of anything I have published or will publish, not to mention the prestige of having one’s work accepted and used by an organization like the BBC. Not that numbers mean anything in themselves. There is only one reader, and that happens to be you at the moment.
The story was read — dramatized, really — by Don Fellows, an unknown to me at the time but someone I have since discovered was an accomplished and well-known actor (you’ve probably seen him in any number of movies or in a Masterpiece Theater production), American but having spent most of his working life in Britain. He makes the story into something better than it is, as any good actor can (I’m opposed to fiction being read by professional actors for that reason; a good actor can make the telephone directory sound like Shakespeare). But I like to think there’s enough to the story to merit consideration on its own.
Now for the interesting stuff.
The story is of course fiction, a product of my imagination. But there are elements to it that are derived from real events. One of these is the account given by the American student of her trip to Poland and the Nazi death camps. That’s an account, virtually verbatim, that was based on an actual description I read by someone I knew who had made just such a trip. Its inclusion in my story resulted in a complaint to the BBC from the Polish consulate in the UK.
There were also other letters as a result of the BBC’s broadcasts of this story, each of them positive and, judging solely on the basis of the writers’ names (not a good way of judging anything, I admit) from Jewish listeners.
It’s a long time since this story was aired (I got up at, I think, 4:00 a.m. to tape-record the first broadcast [via shortwave radio] — 9:00 a.m. GMT). It’s not the same story I would write now, human personality being, like the river of the Greek proverb, not being something you can step into twice without its having become something different from what it was. But the story is still recognizably my own, and it seems to have largely survived the passage of time.
The version of the Internet portrayed in the story now seems, to say the least, quaint. The Net may have been more advanced at the time this story was broadcast than when the story itself was written, but only by a few years. No texting, no smart phones, no email as we know it today. Finding a weather report for Tasmania available online directly from the other side of the world seemed miracle enough. Messaging with a stranger in Berlin while sitting in your bedroom in Brooklyn seemed like the stuff of science fiction. What hasn’t changed is human nature, and if a work of fiction succeeds it’s because it’s captured some aspect of that alternately admirable or discouraging constant.
I heard a commentator this morning on a local radio station complaining about the PC people who object to the use of Indian names for sports franchises, such as the Washington Redskins. He says, nobody bitches about “The Fightin’ Irish,” do they?
I suppose he wouldn’t mind teams named the Savannah Shines, the Chattanooga Chinks, the Columbus Kikes, Waco Wetbacks and, just to bring things up to date, the Rehoboth Ragheads.
Also, I suspect it was Irish Americans who predominated on the rosters of the Notre Dame teams that originally got called the Fightin’ Irish. How many Indians have played for the Cleveland Indians or Washington Redskins or Boston/Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves or any of the many other sports teams that have adopted names of Indian tribes (the commentator’s complaint was occasioned by the recent dropping of the name “Fighting Sioux” by the University of North Dakota)?
I hasten to add, this comment was made over the airwaves of New York City, supposedly a bastion of liberal sensibility (don’t you believe it). Would we be as PC if it wasn’t socially unacceptable to express our prejudices (and rank ignorance) openly? Are we so much less tribal than we were fifty years ago? Some of the young are, I think, because they have actually grown up among people of different backgrounds, but I continue to marvel at what comes out of my friends’ and neighbors mouths’ when they are speaking unguardedly (as well as the prejudice I still harbor myself despite what I think and feel consciously).
A good reason to read the literature of the past, if you need one, is the way it gives us a social snapshot of the time in which it was written. Mark Twain was sympathetic to Afro-Americans but despised, absolutely hated, Indians. That apparently passed for PC at the time (see Roosevelt, Theodore). Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is rife with anti-Semitism, some of it the author’s, but the characters manage to escape Trollope’s prejudices, with a couple of the Jewish ones ending up the most sympathetic, even tragic. If this were a German novel of its time, no one would have to wonder how the Nazis managed to do what they did.
That’s why Trollope is a great writer: the artist, not the man, is in control. You can watch him rev up his contempt for Jews, just as you can watch him try to talk the reader into believing that a particular character (I’m thinking of the “she-cat” American “witch” who follows her British lover to England to try to talk him out of reneging on his proposal of marriage) is loathsome for other reasons. In most cases, though, when the characters actually walk on stage we take their side, not Trollope’s (no, he’s not playing devil’s advocate, though he might possibly be dissembling). Lesser writers can not let down their guard like that, allow the inner man or woman to take over despite what they believe consciously.
Maybe I should send that radio commentator a copy of…but what is the great American Indian novel? The Invisible Man of the indigenous peoples. If it exists, shouldn’t I know it? And, if it exists, doesn’t the fact that I don’t know it mean that it has been suppressed or at least marginalized? No doubt someone reading this can recommend a great but obscure classic. But, why obscure? For all our denial and dithering about slavery and its consequences, we have not only Ellison’s book but plenty of others, including that original blockbuster of white guilt Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Isn’t it odd that our Original Sin should remain so undocumented–unless you count all those cowboys-and-Indians films and pulp fiction by Zane Grey and his descendants, which are hardly what I have in mind?
No wonder that commentator could say what he did with such righteousness. To him Indians are just those guys who scalped beautiful women and burned honest settlers’ homesteads. And then lost to John Wayne and Alan Ladd. Anyway, in the spirit of equal time and equal opportunity, my entry for the PC-free team name is–are you ready?–the Bronx Bigots.