The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Wednesday, November 26, 2003

And now the Thought Police on the Hudson...

After the contributions towards a new ice-age of speech from Ariel Sharon and the University of Virginia touched on here earlier in the week, the New York Observer - whose stuff I have previously noticed with a modicum of praise - is making its contribution to replacing the US national motto with the well-known Irish advice: Whatever you say, say nothing.

In this week's editorial (screwy URL), it starts off as it means to go on:
Is The New Yorker implicitly endorsing anti-Semitism in its pages?

A free brown shirt with every subscription? Note the marvellous weaselly quality of implicitly - lacking direct evidence, one is invited to draw inferences from circumstantial evidence. And, for the guidance of the terminally obtuse, the interrogative is clearly one that expects the answer, Yes.

The searing exposé continues:
In a review of Peter Carey's novel, My Life as a Fake, John Updike refers to one of the characters, David Weiss, as "a rich Jew." Note that Mr. Updike was not quoting a passage from the book, or referring to how another character viewed David Weiss. The "rich Jew" phrase is his own.

So, one infers, it would be acceptable for a character in the novel to say rich Jew; and even for a third person narrator to do so; but not John Updike as himself.

The Observer says that
For the editors of The New Yorker to have signed off on this is insensitive at best.

Sensitising is indeed the process we're looking at: inculcating a Pavlovian reaction, threatening pain so that the act complained of will be avoided in future. Just as, in Jim Crow Mississippi, a Negro male would know by puberty never to raise his eyes to meet those of a white woman: no need for muscular enforcement, except, of course, for strangers who didn't know the code.

The very word Jew is apparently suspect [1]: hence the absurd circumlocution Jewish person. But, qualified by rich?
To say that the expression "rich Jew" is loaded with historical anti-Semitism is an understatement. Would Mr. Updike describe someone as "a rich Catholic" or "a rich Protestant"?

Why not? In Ireland, where Catholic and Protestant are separate tribes, what more natural [2]? No less an oracle than Jonah Goldberg refers to rich Muslims on NRO. And the Village Voice has a review from 1999 using the expression rich blacks [3].

Would it matter if one could demonstrate that that the use of the word rich, attached to the names of ethnic and religious groups around was a commonplace? Clearly not: Jewish exceptionalism rules, OK, according to the Observer. Because, of all such names thus attached, only Jew is a stereotype.

And how is one to describe - to pluck a name out of the air - the Bronfman family? Who have been - and so far as I'm aware, still are, fabulously - to coin a word - rich? Use of a synonym would presumably be equally insensitive. Reference to some monetary estimate of their fortune would surely be as bad. Saying that they controlled a group of companies (Seagram) which is well known to be worth a mint, again, doesn't get round the stereotype. Whichever way you slice it, the Bronfmans are rich [4]. And, according to the Observer's rule, we can't say it!

I'm fairly sure the paper is perfectly well aware that, in the cold light of day, any neutral - observer - would treat its contention as laughable. But that's the point: to ensure that the question is looked at, not in the cold light of day, but in the murk of half-truth and innuendo - not directly, but reflected in a distorting mirror.

And, lo and behold!, an old friend gets namechecked:
At a time when anti-Semitism has been documented to be on the rise on the country's college campuses-so much so that Harvard University president Lawrence Summers gave a speech addressing this toxic trend-it is frankly outrageous that David Remnick and the editors of The New Yorker allowed Mr. Updike's "rich Jew" to appear.

Documented by whom, you might ask, just to start? And what does the piece mean by anti-Semitism: physical attacks, student groups, literature? Or does it mean antisemitic thought? How have any of these been quantified? The writer assumes that his readers are already cowed by his rant - who amongst us can answer in the negative to the new Mark Fuhrman question? - and will allow his assertions as fact by default, without the least attempt at substantiating them.

That he should laud Summers's disgraceful weaselling [5] - a toxic concoction indeed! - is scarcely a surprise.

  1. There are one or two pieces around - like a 2000 piece from Slate and this from a linguists' listserv going back to 1992. But a quick scan of the first 100 of jew "jewish person" on Google seems to show the terms being used on apparently Jewish sites more or less interchangeably. My hypothesis is that avoiding Jew is a Gentile PC fetish. I know that the BBC's thought police (in their Producers' Guidelines somewhere) insist on the use of black people rather than blacks (and likewise for Chinese, Africans, etc).

  2. Only a generation or two ago, the same applied to the US itself! The Ku Klux Klan's USP in its 1920s boom was, in states like Grand Dragon David Stephenson's Indiana, that it was a left-footer-free haven; Al Smith supposedly confirmed in 1928 that no Catholic was available in an election for the US Presidency; JKF's success in 1960 was, in substantial measure, that he proved that a Catholic faith was no bar to the White House.

  3. I infer that the author is himself black: perhaps that makes a difference. In seeking an example of rich blacks from a white author, I'm in difficulty, what with so many blacks still using their slave names. Perhaps, in the cause of sensitivity, all authors should append a statement of ethnicity to their pieces. Pretty soon, it'll be as if the Dixiecrats really did win in 1948!

  4. WaPo (November 24) has Edgar Bronfman Jr poneying up a mere quarter of a billion bucks cash for his stake in the purchase of Warner Music Group. And Bronfman's not rich? That I should know such poverty...

  5. Links from this week's Sharon piece.

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