Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Rejection of Shame

I'm still reading Claudia Roth Pierpont's Roth Unbound, advancing chronologically through Philip Roth's career.  For some reason she skipped the long story "On the Air," which appeared in issue 10 of the paperback-magazine New American Review, back in 1970; I know I still have that issue around here somewhere.  It has almost never been reprinted, apparently because Roth himself hates it.  But it fits so neatly into that period, which includes several intentionally provocative works, from Portnoy to the Nixon satire Our Gang. And incidentally, one of the more amazing bits in Roth Unbound is a page-and-a-half excerpt from Nixon's White House Tapes, most of which I read before I realized that it was not a quotation from Our Gang but the real thing:
NIXON: Roth is of course a Jew
HALDEMAN: Oh yes ... He's brilliant in a sick way [73].
Anyway, I'm now reading Pierpont's discussion of Roth's middle period, initiated by The Ghost Writer in 1979.  This is the novel where the protagonist, Nathan Zuckerman, meets a young woman who might or might not be Anne Frank, if Frank had survived Bergen-Belsen and immigrated to the US.  Roth was interested in her status as a sort of Jewish saint, had been wondering for years about her appeal.  As Pierpont explains it:
For all the tears that have been shed for Anne Frank, has her book really taught anybody anything?

The question may seem naive.  But Nathan, in the voice of his imaginary Anne, comes to an answer about the lessons of the book that accords, perhaps unsurprisingly, with Roth's defense of his stories years earlier.  The Diary has touched so many people -- and here Roth says "aloud" the most hazardous thing he felt he had to say -- because there was nothing notably Jewish about this mostly secular, Dickens-reading, European family who just happened to be Jews.  "A harmless Chankukah song" once a year, a few Hebrew words, a few candles, a few presents; there was hardly more to it than that.  They were in no way foreign, strange, or embarrassing -- and look what happened to them.  They were entirely charming, in fact, especially, of course, Anne.  And look what happened to her.  What did it take to provoke what happened?  "It took nothing -- that was the horror.  And that was the truth.  And that was the power of her book."  As Roth had once replied to the rabbis, it is impossible to control anti-Semitism through exemplary behavior, accomplishments, or charm.  Because anti-Semitism originates not in the Jew but in the anti-Semites.  Repression, pretension, "putting on a good face": all useless.  Anne's diary offered a double lesson, really.  For Gentiles, a lesson in common humanity, the nightmare made real because of how familiar Anne and her family seemed.  And for Jews, the fact that this familiarity had not done a thing to save them [118].
The stories Roth had to defend years earlier were in his first book, Goodbye Columbus, which had outraged many Jewish readers and spokesmen for (as they thought) airing Jewish dirty laundry where the Gentiles could see it.  At least once he was asked, "Mr. Roth, would you write the same stories you've written if you were living in Nazi Germany?" (14).  Roth was not living in Nazi Germany, of course.  His take on Anne Frank was in part an answer to that very stupid question.  For one thing, German Jews were among the most assimilated in Europe; all their efforts to minimize their differences made them no less vulnerable.  Hasidim who stood out were demonized in ways that often sound familiar from antigay propaganda now, but assimilated Jews were demonized as a Fifth Column, a secret menace pretending to be normal while burrowing away at the foundations of Western Civilization.  As Pierpont puts it, anti-Semitism (or any kind of bigotry, really) originates not in the Jew but in the anti-Semite.  I've argued before that trying to appease bigots by conforming to predominant gender norms is just as futile, for the same reason: flamboyant "stereotypical" queers will outrage many people, but others will be just as outraged by non-stereotypical queers who pretend to be normal.  This doesn't mean that all gay people or Jews should strive to be visible, only that it's useless to rationalize conformity as a remedy for bigotry.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a fine piece yesterday that (among other things) addressed the same point for African-Americans.
When W.E.B. Du Bois, in 1897, claimed that the "first and greatest" step toward addressing "the Negro Problem," lay in correcting the "immorality, crime and laziness among the Negroes themselves" he was wrong. No amount of morality could have prevented the overthrow of Wilmington by white supremacists—the only coup in American history—a year later. When Booker T. Washington urged blacks to use "every iota of influence that we possess" to "get rid of the criminal and loafing element of our people," he was wrong. When Marcus Garvey claimed that "the greatest stumbling block in the way of progress in the race has invariably come from within the race itself," he was dead wrong. When Malcolm X claimed that "the white man is too intelligent to let someone else come and gain control of the economy of his community,” and asserted that black people "will let anybody come in and take control of the economy of your community," he was wrong. He knew the game was rigged. He did not know how much.
In his book The Condemnation of Blackness, the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that a few years after Du Bois made his proclamations he was shocked to find himself cited by unreformed white supremacists.
Besides, many of the black people who were lynched in Du Bois' day were in fact responsible, disciplined, and successful: that was why the mobs targeted them.  (Again, like Jews -- stereotyped as rich -- and gay men -- ditto.)

That isn't to deny, of course, that many black people are irresponsible -- Coates addresses that elsewhere in the piece -- or that many gay people are.  But so are many white people, and many straights.  Whites may complain about low-class white trash, but they don't see the misconduct of other whites as invalidating their own privilege, and they certainly don't expect to be judged by it.  The same goes for straights versus gays, or Gentiles versus Jews, or Christians versus Muslims, or men versus women ... any such division, really.

In another book I read recently, What Is English and Why Should We Care? (Oxford, 2013), Tim Machan says that colonialists preferred that "natives" speak broken English, which could be despised as a symptom of laziness and/or inferior intellect, rather than fluent standard English, which caused the rulers anxiety on numerous levels.  This double bind persists, I think, in whites' contempt for poor blacks (or other Others -- it also applied to European immigrants a hundred years ago) combined with hatred of those who succeed in whites' domains.  This accounts for the racist hatred of Barack Obama, as can be seen in the memes which depict him as an African witch doctor or other "primitive" caricature.  But it can also be seen in white liberal middle-class caricatures of inbred rednecks and ignorant fundamentalists.  The Other is a mirror in which we try very hard not to see ourselves.