The Clare Spark Blog

October 22, 2009

“Identity” and “Race”

Image (66)Several comments on my Facebook page raise questions that require more space than is available there to answer. They refer to 1. Jews as “the Chosen People”; 2. whether or not there is a cohesive “Jewish” identity; and 3. a suggestion that Jews might share a common genetic inheritance.

Everyone who reads this website knows that I have written extensively about “multiculturalism” or “rooted cosmopolitanism” as a way of slipping the once discredited notion of “race” back into the discourse of politics. Multiculturalism, I have shown, is not the same as religious pluralism (the outcome of the separation of Church and State), but rather an administrative (bureaucratic) response to raucous riots and related developments in the urban politics of the mid- to late 1960s. As I argued in this article for History News Network,, multiculturalism, taken to be the higher tolerance and respect for “diversity,” is a strategy that resegregated individuals and groups who were on the road to integration, or to use the older terminology, multiculturalism smashed “the melting pot.”  The latter was a notion that America would create a new man, one that led the way for older societies in its solidarity as a democracy with contributions from all its immigrants (and later, freedmen: see Charles Sumner’s speeches on the brotherhood of humanity, elsewhere on this site). Multiculturalism, I have been arguing, is above all, collectivist and irrationalist, in that it not only collapses the unique individual into a “race” or “ethnicity,” but insists that what scientists deem to be “facts” are bogus impositions on “the Other,” that in fact  [!] there are group facts incomprehensible to those not sharing the same group identity. Or, as the Foucauldians claim, institutional power creates knowledge, and “science is a swindle.”

Out the window went all the “unfinished revolutions” that I have blogged about earlier this year: the radical Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution. (For how this played out at Pacifica Radio, see, also “Storming Pacifica” in the same month.) For co-existing with all these “revolutions” are the powerful reactions by elites threatened with dispossession or inconvenient regulation. Scientific racism and the related 19th C. theory of “polygenesis” were staples of the aristocratic Right, while the best the Left could do was to oppose “racism” as the creation of imperialism, and in a related move, to advance the “Lamarckian” idea that social engineering would create changes in the germ plasm of living things so that “perfectibility” was not just utopian, but a realizable possibility. (But to the Leninist Left, anti-imperialism was not racist, but rather the righteous protection of “communities” under threat from the West. See the Lenin/Stalin-Rosa Luxemberg debate on the national question. My summary is probably too crude to do justice to the debate, but I stand with Rosa L. on this point.)

I am reviewing these positions as a prelude to dealing with points one, two, and three above.

1. With wealth-creating innovations in finance (starting in the late 17th century), came a renewed hostility to the love of filthy lucre, long associated with “the Jews.” “The Chosen People” was interpreted by those who stood in the way of these financial innovations to connote the intent of “the Jews” to turn all Christians into their servants and slaves. Their imitators in the later period deployed the Old Testament to “prove” that Jews were inherently militaristic and bigoted toward all other religions, instructed by their terrifying God.  Erased was the dominant conception of  tikkun olam, the idea that chosenness was an obligation to repair injustices committed by oneself, thence to make reparations (atonement) to the victim of one’s wrongdoing. Michael Lerner and his “peacenik” followers have transformed this individualized interpretation of Judaism, collectivizing it, and insinuating in the process that their way is the God-mandated path toward peace in the Middle East. Whether Jews are religious or secular,  possibly more than any other factor, the ethical obligation of tikkun (as understood by liberals) tends to lead individual Jews upon a path where “society” is uplifted. Most American Jews find the statism of the Democratic Party to be their natural home, while others find Adam Smith and neoliberalism to serve their ethical aims more effectively. I have never personally encountered Jews who believed themselves to be God-Chosen to lord it over all other groups. Even Budd Schulberg’s cynical Sammy Glick was not a typical Jew, but rather, in the author’s analysis, the product of the impoverished, narrowly orthodox Jewry of the  Lower East Side of Manhattan, where Sammy was brutally knocked around by non-Jewish toughs.

Hitler adopted the Chosen People line for his Aryans, partaking of both definitions described above: The Aryans/Nordics would be top dogs, but their mission was essentially ethical, in that they were doing “the Lord’s work” in annihilating race-hating Jews from the planet. (“The Jews” were the “anti-race” par excellence; he must have been thinking of their rootless cosmopolitanism.) Quite the nature lover, that one. In his second “secret” book (1927?), he envisioned a global union of racially pure volkisch states, dominated of course by the master race.

2. Is there a cohesive Jewish identity? If one means that there is a sense of solidarity between all Jews, then the answer is obviously not. One need only look at the debates between Zionists, non-Zionists, and anti-Zionists in the 1930s and  early 1940s, as the destruction of European Jewry was in progress, while the world looked on with mostly indifference or relief.  Look around and talk to observant Jews who view with contempt or pity the “assimilated” or “self-hating” Jews who, in turn, reject any but the slightest Jewish identification whatsoever. This point needs no further elaboration here, except to note that Philip Roth’s Operation Shylock comes to mind: curiously, both his chief Palestinian and Jewish characters share the same hostile narrative of Israel’s founding.

3. The non-Jewish perception of “the Jews” or of individual “Jews” is historically specific. There are no pure races; liberals and leftists in the 1930s mounted a campaign to demolish such notions. But there is a common theme among groups who feel that their solidarity (i.e. property)  is under attack–the fear of “miscegenation.” Of all the negative themes in American popular culture, this phobia seems the most potent. See for instance, the hysterical passages in Thomas Dixon’s novels, especially The Flaming Sword, that imagined educated blacks as THE danger to the white race (whites meaning specifically the Scots-Irish who, for Dixon, were the true American patriots and fighters who won the American Revolution). Indeed in Dixon’s fantasy, the Southern Negroes, formerly the grateful recipients of paternalism, who then migrated to the North (where presumably they were educated) comprised 50% of the Communist Party! This book is the most chilling example of a native American fascism that I have encountered.

[Illustrated: an advertisement from an upscale magazine I received in 1990: the caption reads “A rare and fine Continental biscuit bust of a Blackamoor. Circa 1840….” The price was not quoted. Besides the “primitive” love of luxury and decoration, the position of the lips is suggestive of a willing sexual availability.]

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