The Clare Spark Blog

March 9, 2015

Did racial theory take off in medieval Spain: Benzion Netanyahu’s big book

Moshe Maimon "Marranos" 1892

Moshe Maimon “Marranos” 1892

It is unbelievable to me that in the race-obsessed press and liberal academy, few have bothered to trace the origins of racial theory, let alone how such theory as racial struggle supplanted class interest or class struggle as the engine of history, to the point where “economic determinism” or “materialism” are discarded as wayward, hellish “Jewish” inventions.

During the last two weeks, I have been absorbed in reading Bibi Netanyahu’s father’s big book on the origins of the Spanish Inquisition, a tome that was subjected to furious, dismissive reviews when it was first published in 1995 , though it is obviously a masterpiece of scholarly detective work. Indeed, it was presented to Pope Francis by Bibi in 2013. See this brief account here: The author correctly states that the Inquisition was not owing to papal interference but was political and secular in its origin.

The elder Netanyahu argued that racial theory in the form of antisemitism may be said to have originated in late medieval Spain as an attempt by envious “Old Christians” to drive ‘crypto-Jews’ (i.e., the “New Christians” or conversos) out of their positions as tax farmers, tax collectors, state administrative offices, the professions, and artisan crafts. The same competitiveness and animus, drawing from the antisemitism of the Patristic Church Fathers that labeled all ‘deicide’ Jews evil by nature, would not only explain the expulsion and expropriation of the Jews from Spain in 1492, but would account for the application of racial theory in Nazi Germany.

Neo-Nazi "Hidden Heritage"

Neo-Nazi “Hidden Heritage”

It is very hard to pin down the origins of racial theory. The earliest reference I could find ended up as an endnote in my Melville book, citing John Block Friedman, The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1981): The Attic sensibility was viewed by medieval (Aristotelian) Catholics as moderate, disciplined and balanced, while its monstrous antitheses represented “emotion, redundance, and formal disorder”; monstrosity was correlated with “the enigmatic, the inflated and the grandiose.”  The hot, deserted antipodes were linked to the vaguely situated Ethiopia, and found at the most extreme distances from the Greek center of the world; its perverse inhabitants had feet turned backwards and walked upside down; i.e., they were out of reach of the Christian gospel. [my footnote ends here] This is not inconsistent with the Netanyahu thesis, though it draws upon Pliny the Elder, (see

Google race theory, and you will find references to Linnaeus and his conception of speciation, and everyone notes the popularity of “scientific racism” in the 19th century. George L. Mosse’s widely read book Toward The Final Solution is ably summarized here: (Briefly, Mosse sees racism as originating in the Enlightenment and in Pietism. He did not look for the material and ideological origins of racial theory in late Medieval Spain, though he is generally grouped with the “cultural Marxists.”)

This is what I take away from Benzion Netanyahu’s major contribution to scholarship: while advocates of “the Judeo-Christian heritage” minimize the degree of leftover antisemitism of the most virulent kind, Bibi’s father (writing from the meritocratic Right) spared no sensibilities in his search for truth. Although Netanyahu thought he was setting the stage for Hitler’s deployment of racial theory in Nazi propaganda, I draw a second lesson from his work, perhaps more relevant today.

Just as the New Christians (or Marranos) imagined themselves safe from persecution after their conversion to the dominant culture, today’s Democrats and other leftists of Jewish descent imagine that they are integrated into the political class as friends and equals. In many cases they probably are, but who can see into the heart of another?

The “assimilated” may be living in a fool’s paradise. Are the Inquisitions finished for good? What about the debate over Israel and rising antisemitism in Europe and America? Who is teaching our children about the precise content of antisemitism, past and present? Who is teaching them about the anarchy, constant warfare, and sadistic horrors of the Middle Ages, or the progress achieved by the humanitarians of modernity?

Goya, "Tribunal...." 1812-1819

Goya, “Tribunal….” 1812-1819


March 10, 2013

What remains useful about Freud?

One version of individuality, NYC

One version of individuality, NYC

(For a prelude to this blog, see

It is obvious why many social conservatives would reject anything smacking of Freudianism out of hand: besides his secular version of Judaism throughout life, his later work identified him as an atheist, and in such works as The Future of an Illusion argued that those persons believing in religion were in a state of regression (clinging to an idealized Father figure); he denied that children were “innocent” by pointing to infant or  infantile sexuality and the Oedipus complex; he argued that most of us live with ambivalence about all our love objects: such mixtures of love and hate regarding parents and siblings destabilize portentous emotions that preserve hierarchy, whether these be the deployment by powerful institutions of hero-worship, state-worship, or the expectation that families are (unproblematic) havens in a heartless world.

Rather, for Freud (especially for some of his followers), the rhetoric of the perfectly happy family preserves tyrannical hierarchies, causes childish regression to dependency and loss of a critical/skeptical outlook in adults, and worst of all, eliminates the notion of the horizontal contract in favor of vertical contracts. I.e., the Good King or Leader will protect us if we don’t question the legitimacy of his policies and institutional practices. This move removes attention from the fairness or unfairness of the horizontal contract, a fiction of rationality that can be  preserved either in the statism of the progressive movement or in the “rational choice” theory of libertarians. But if there is an abundance of labor, the employer holds all the cards; if there are many beautiful women competing for the love and protection of powerful men, woman’s worth is downgraded, except in agricultural, pre-modern societies where female strength and competence as helpmeets and breeders are primary. And we wonder at the popularity of primitivism? (click onto the illustration of a youthful anarchist: if this isn’t neo-Nazi, I don’t know what is).

Which brings us to the question of individuality. As moderns and inheritors of civilization, we want to be introspective, to be self-examining. We abjure impulse in favor of picking and choosing our life partners on the basis of their psychological maturity, as prospective companions; we hope to be appropriately self-critical as parents and adults with respect to the elderly, or how we evaluate everyone and everything from economic policies to great writers, presidents, and other historical actors, or to beloved mates, teachers, and friends. Such strenuous introspection is difficult without the memory of multiple traumas, small and large. Here was Freud’s lasting contribution to humanity. The more we courageously look at our choices, noting which were forced upon us through the accidents of our particularly histories, the more able we are to look at whether or not we had the individual choices we imagine. We recognize, without shame, internal conflicts, and face them with curiosity and the determination to dig further, without hating ourselves for our “errors” or sins.

Freud remains unsurpassed in his diagnosis of early childhood and trauma: traumas that resurface in later life to cause psychosomatic illness and the immobilization of anxiety, depression, and the fear that we have not lived our own lives, but were the playthings of a wicked cosmos, even demonic forces.

To acknowledge how sex and aggression play out in institutions and in always difficult families, how instinctual forces may penetrate all our attachments or “choices”—whether these be our votes for representatives, or whether or not to be parents, or to understand sexual attraction or repulsion, or to practice sadomasochist rituals, is to attain a higher level of freedom than Freud’s predecessors enjoyed. As one great teacher of mine reassured me: “We are not civilized yet.”

Sigmund Freud was the consummate bourgeois, pointing to both the limits to human freedom and to the long process of emancipation from self-annihilating illusion. How many of us possess his courageous, if ambiguous, embrace of the modern world? How many of us dare to give up the perverse satisfactions of the guilty liberal by emulating Minerva’s owl? There are few compensations for old age and painful experience, but here is one: we may see the trajectory of our lives and treat our choices with less disappointment and more generosity.

[Professor Hank Greenspan of the University of Michigan, a trained psychoanalyst, has given me permission to quote his response to the blog: “In an age of tweets and bits and quick fixes, the notion of spending, literally, years trying to understand someone else’s subjectivity in its particularity and complexity–including one’s own!–is radical enough. Also, the related notion (alien to most academic work) that no interpretation can be more than conjecture until it is engaged, refined, and worked over with the person about whom the interpretation intends to apply. Timing counts too–also alien to work that concerns only texts rather than folks. Freud’s “technique” contribution remains, for me, his most important legacy.”]

Minerva's Owl?

Minerva’s Owl?

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