Macklemore, anti-Semitism, and us

Instead of repost one of the various stories – and there will be plenty more – about Macklemore’s terrible costume, the concert, the anti-Semitic stuff, and the apology that is surely to come, I thought I’d offer some thoughts about what this moment says about us. Drawn from anecdotes, sure, but I think Macklemore’s first response to criticism is actually instructive and a window into something worth examining.

The Macklemore story is simple. At some sort of private or small show, Macklemore put on a beard, wig, and fake nose that is plainly out of the anti-Semitic caricature canon. That part is not complicated and not even imaginative. Hard to argue about the caricature and its serious offense. What I find interesting is his tweet in response:

macklemore tweet

There are two ways to take this. One, it’s a complete lie and he meant to do what he did, fully aware of its implications and shittiness. That’s possible, but, I think, pretty unlikely. Two, and I think this is most likely, he was genuinely naive and didn’t get it, thinking, at most, that it was a safe ironic persona to perform in, or, in the least, completely unaware of what was going down. I’ll let him sort that out and live with the consequences. He’ll have to eat shit for this and deserves it. That’s just true.

But it made me think about our sense of anti-Semitism today. The “us”  or “our” in what I say below is purposely ambiguous, though I do want to link it to political culture and how we think about race and racism. My thoughts on this start with two courses I taught a handful of years ago at Hampshire College. One at a time.

In spring 2008, I taught a course titled “Introducing the Frankfurt School.” It was just what the title described. An introduction to the Frankfurt School, which means that the meaning and ghost of anti-Semitism was a central theme. We started with and slowly read Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (a fabulous book). The response of so many students shocked me. One after another stopped me on campus or after class or in office hours to say it: “I had no idea anti-Semitism was such a big deal.” This floored me. I’d always ask in response “how do you make sense of the Holocaust?” I got a variety of responses to that, most of which said, basically, “I figured it was just a terrible moment and Hitler made people want to kill Jews.” No sense of Hitler as the culmination or terrifying turn in the history of cruel racism. Genocide, instead, as the will of an individual holding sway over millions of Germans.

I don’t like to bash students in these moments. They are being honest and, less than their own thinking, they reflect the world we’ve made for them. So I wondered how it is that we have a world in which anti-Semitism as a complete social, cultural, and political system – Europe for centuries on the Frankfurt School account – is new news, shocking, surprising, and, for a few, something on which to cast suspicious doubt. Students never believe the extent of human cruelty. Whether teaching about the Holocaust or the history of slavery, descriptions of torture, mutilation, and mass death are, I find, more often met with skepticism – surely it’s a literary flourish, right?! – than with grim acceptance of history’s horror. Anne Frank’s thing about believing humans are fundamentally a good lot comes into play here, not as the actual source of skepticism, but as a reflection of how so many of us want to see the world. Adorno and Horkeheimer tell a different story. And it disturbed the whole class. It should. But the surprise? That caught me by surprise.

In spring 2009, in part responding to this course a year prior, I taught “Signs of the Unrepresentable.” This course focused on Claude Lanzmann’s documentary film Shoah; students watched it twice and we read a pile of material on trauma, memory, language, and history. I got some of the same response – is this for real? were people really so terrible for so long? – but also a second response that gave me another window into the inheritance of anti-Semitism. A few students from the class, along with a number of other students who’d heard about the course, “confronted” me about the material. Surely this was a way of smuggling a pro-Israel sentiment into campus life, right? Wasn’t this too perfectly timed with the work of Students for Justice in Palestine, who were making a huge push for divestment? Words like “crafty,” “manipulative,” and “orchestrating” were a part of most of those “conversations” (it was mostly scolding me in my office while I furtively checked email). Anyone who knows me and my thinking about Israel-Palestine (complicated, yes, but right-wing Zionist? Um, no) would find this odd, but it was exactly what happened. Students “demanded” that I “explain” myself, justify the course, and show how it was something other than an instrument for anti-Palestinian violence. Adorno, Benjamin, Blanchot, Levinas, Derrida, Lacapra, and others had been reduced to that. Great thinkers reckoning with catastrophe? Or orchestration of a political programme?

At that point I was moving on to Amherst College permanently and, frankly, was exhausted by this contest and disrespect, so I let it go. (Though as I type this, my head is starting to throb with frustration and anger, even just at the memory.) “Come to class and see, if you want.” No one ever showed up. “Explain the connection to me.” No one ever explained. There were complaints about this in the evaluations, though, so it never went away. But the point for me was not the intention of the students. Rather, it was the casual way so many were able to cast skepticism over anti-Semitism and recast it as manipulation, guilt-tripping, exaggeration, and secret agendas. Those are of course all anti-Semitic tropes and come from a terrible history, though I’m not entirely convinced very many, if any, students saw them as such.

All of this is just to say: it’s entirely possible, even probable, that we’ve moved anti-Semitism from being one of the centerpieces of understanding European and Western racism to something else, something about which we’re skeptical, or, more likely, something we as a culture have largely forgotten about. I’m also thinking about this: the Anti-Defamation League put out the results of a survey on anti-Semitism recently, and it was fairly viral in my social media circles. I was surprised by the vehement skepticism about its findings; so many questions about ADL and their manipulation of questions and numbers. I don’t know the methodology and I do know that no one is ever happy with survey questions about racist attitudes, but I am sure that I found the skepticism surprising and weird. I mean, seventy years ago Europe didn’t give a shit that the Nazis were trying to kill every last Jew on earth. Only seventy years ago. So, now we should be skeptical about numbers reflecting lingering anti-Semitic attitudes and beliefs? Really? Or should we file this study under the category “No Shit, Of Course” findings, like the endless studies about how the cops hassle and arrest black men more often than white men or that pop culture instills destructive ideas of the body in girls and young women?

anti sem mackle

When we move anti-Semitism to that “something else,” a kind of negotiable and vague idea we may or may not link to centuries or more than a millennium of history, all sorts of things become possible. It’s not an accident that a good bit of anti-Israel rhetoric traffics in anti-Semitic language. That doesn’t mean that criticizing Israel is anti-Semitic, but rather that like all deep, abiding racist histories, the history of persecution and murder of Jews leaves habits in our language and imagination that transcend individual intention. It’s hard to call people out on that, because we as a society generally think of racism as individual intention – “I don’t hate Jews, so why would you call that anti-Semitic?” Histories of racism also leave traces in our sense of what’s hideous, scary, and threatening. So, when Macklemore says he was just dressing up as a witch, a good part of me thinks “you probably were and that was actually still anti-Semitic, whether or not you thought it was, man!” Indeed, his first extended words on this event appeal to just that, intention…

My intention was to dress up and surprise the people at the show with a random costume and nothing more. Thus, it was surprising and disappointing that the images of a disguise were sensationalized leading to the immediate assertion that my costume was anti-Semetic [sic]. I acknowledge how the costume could, within a context of stereotyping, be ascribed to a Jewish caricature. I am here to say that it was absolutely not my intention, and unfortunately at the time I did not foresee the costume to be viewed in such regard. I’m saddened that this story, or any of my choices, would lead to any form of negativity.

No surprise there. We have a playbook for all this stuff. I’m sure another moment of deeper reckoning is coming, a trip to the museum in Washington D.C., and a real apology. I don’t write that with skepticism. I actually write it from exhaustion with this ritual. I get tired of us having to witness the sin-redemption structure of celebrity moral education. That’s another post.

On a personal note, and this totally shifts everything to something less globally important, but locally real … I find it sad to lose Macklemore. I know we were all supposed to hate him because he won a Grammy instead of Kendrick Lamar, or because he’s straight and (supposedly) spoke for gay and lesbian people in “Same Love,” but with that song I have a different memory. I don’t care one way or another about the Grammys, which means I don’t have much of a feeling about that. I understand why people do. Just not my fight or deep concern. I also understand that solidarity speak is a fraught, even dangerous business and I’m sure Macklemore fucked up in a few or more key ways (though most writing on that issue seemed more concerned with teeing off on him than thinking through complicated questions of how to express solidarity). When I see us lose Macklemore, or at least have that asterisk put next to his name, I’m very particular. I think of hearing my fourth grade son and his friends singing a top-ten song that was anti-homophobia. Rocking out to it in ways that kids do, really feeling the lyrics they could remember as they exited the school, bound together in – let’s sit with this, folks – words against hating gay and lesbian people. You didn’t see that coming. I know you didn’t. I sure didn’t.

We lose Macklemore because he did this terrible and fucked up costume thing. But my point here, as I rambled through it, was also this: we lose Macklemore because of how we as a society have failed to reproduce a robust sense of anti-Semitism as murderous and cruel racism. That showed up in my classes. That shows up in activism. And, I think, it probably showed up on that stage.