May 20, 2014 John Drabinski

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.

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Comments (8)

  1. I used to teach a freshmen writing course that had fairy tales as its focus. Teaching those 18- and 19-year-olds the historical interpretation of the Grimms, showing them how clearly one can see anti-semetic messages in the portrayals and fates of the witches, always led to a similar surprise. I was lucky in some ways because instead of being outraged at me for requiring the discussion, my students were almost always outraged that nobody had ever told them the truth about fairy tales. “Fairy tales aren’t happy stories, are they?” was the consensus every time I taught that class.

    Beyond that, thank you for this piece.

  2. Gary Lehman

    thank you for digging through the layers, ripping the veneer off, and helping with the diagnostics towards root cause of this eternal anti-semitism. there is a cultural ‘self-evidence’ and assumption of the correctness of anti-semitism; astonishingly, it appears to be ‘politically correct’, similarly to defending the rights of gays and supporting inter-racial relations. how sadly corrupted…

  3. Jessica, that’s really interesting. And one of those ways that teaching can be both painful (naiveté and how it can turn to hostility) and edifying (change the way they look at words or images, you do a little bit toward changing the world).

  4. Michael Fagenblat

    Really interesting John, in many ways, thanks for putting your mind to it. The point of the “us” in your title, I take it, is that anti-Semitism, like racism and sexism, has its roots in social and historical factors beyond the individual’s control. I agree, and it’s really valuable to remember that. But I worry that loading Macklemore with blame for uninentional sins is not really fair. Instead of producing a sin-redemption structure it can produce a Pauline reflex where the Law (“Don’t be an anti-Semite, even without knowing it!”) produces the very Guilt it condemns. The sad result of this is that instead of redeeming the unwitting perpetrator it can make him an explicit anti-Semite (“those bastards who blame me for sins that are not mine”). What you say is really valuable, but I’d take it as a way of disburdening Macklemore of guilt rather than saddling him with it, or rather as a way of partaking in his responsibility. I read you as saying that it’s not really his anti-Semitism but ours.

  5. Michael: thanks for a really good, and really challenging, comment.

    That’s a tough problem. In this particular case, you have to start with a basic judgment – is he telling the truth when he says “I was dressed up as a witch, not a stereotype”? Or is he lying and he was really trying to insult Jewish people? For the sake of discussion, I went with the former. Perhaps the latter is true, we’ll see.

    If he really didn’t understand what he was doing – in the fullest sense, that this costume was innocent of cruelty and hate – then it comes from somewhere, this forgetting. But that’s the thing about forgetting of racist history. It’s not just in your conscious thoughts and decisions. It’s part of language and imagination, so how you imagine things or formulate an insult, critique, or debate can often manifest just that non-conscious, fully-present racism. Like if you somehow (inexplicably, for me) confuse an anti-Semitic caricature with a witch.

    Now, if that’s where Macklemore is in this case, then the “us” is the world that has let anti-Semitism slip from our memory and sense of the history of racism. The “us” has to float, because, of course, many of us actually teach and write and talk about just that! Either way, though, I did say and will restate here that he has to “eat shit for this.” Inelegant way of putting, yeah, but I wanted to be clear (one buried line in a long post) that responsibility is there anyway. What he does with that is something else. Does he continue to deny? Or does he figure out what’s happening and say, my god, what have I done?

    People fuck up and say things they didn’t mean to say. Speak words much bigger and deeper than their intentions. Unfortunately, and this is my wider argument, we locate racism in intentions, which means, here, that saying “my god, what have I done, that was terrifyingly racist and I didn’t even realize it!” is all but unthinkable.

    What I hope is that this Pauline moment, as you smartly call it (nice), produces a guilt that one wants to purge or fix, rather than take the complaint-then-hate path against the imagined, alleged guilt-makers. For me, that’s the power of the term “racism.” It’s terrible and terrifying. So, if you wander into that territory, get called out for it and find yourself stuck, then the right thing to do is figure out how to get unstuck and be better. We are always responsible for how we respond in that moment, and that’s no small bit of responsibility and it’s tough to respond responsibly. Humans aren’t good at that, as we know, and that’s why your worry here is so important. I have that worry too, honestly.

  6. Michael Fagenblat

    At 1am last night I wrote a profound and hilarious response – as are all responses that never see the light of day because of an internet crash. Here is a reconstructed version.

    1. I have an impulsive tendency to insist on holding people to their “personal responsiblity,” as I take you John to be doing here. But I’ve learned from my kids and esp my wife that this is often not only wrong but also harsh and unproductive. People actually respond better when they are not accused or threatened, and all the more so when the act is in fact not rooted in them but in society.

    2. You can’t talk of ‘the death of the author’ and then tell the agent to eat shit for “his” sins. The whole critique of individualism in which you and I trade requires us to rethink this notion of ‘personal responsibility’. This is also what makes the prison system so criminal and capitalism such a great hoax, because individuals are rarely the agents of their own demise or success. Your rockstar is no exception. Ramming his sin down his throat is just pushing the lump under the carpet across a bit. It’s saying: “You Mackemore are the problem.” And it’s therefore implying that we are not the problem, we are not anti-Semitic – or racist or sexist or whatever. But that’s bullshit. Of course we are, and if we’re not it’s probably because of some other moral distortion we’re carrying, e.g., because of a very rich education or privileged opportunities. Macklemore is just a little lump in the carpet. You can step on him and it will hurt him, but it won’t do much to ironing out of anti-Semitism.

    3.This reminds me of a crazy thing that happened to me in Poland a few ago. I visited “Jewtown,” (Zid-something), a small village outsidet Krakow where mainly Jews lived before WW2. No Jews there now, only a synagogue that functions as a museum. In the foyer to the synagogue I see they are selling this sort of thing –
    As you can imagine I’m horrified. Takes Macklemore to a whole new level. Apparently they’re everywhere in Poland. Outraged I says to the woman: “What the hell! This is an anti-Semitic figurine you’re selling to memorialize the Jews who were killed on account of your anti-Semitism.” With utmost sincerity and bewildering innocence she calmly insists that this is not anti-Semitic but just a lucky token that can bring prosperity on your house.
    I’m not sure what The Lesson is here, but I’m not prepared to think this sincere, good-natured woman should eat shit for her sins, or that the 40million Poles who think likewise should, or the 1 billion people the ADL counts. If we add sexism and racism to the list of unintentional sins and target unwitting offenders we’ll be left in Massachussettes with a few righteous intellectuals. Do we want to judge society or change it? Because it’s damn easy to judge it, even if in doing so we contradict everything we say in class about the inseparability of the subject from its conditions of production. We contradict it because we exclude ourselves from society, as if we are not touched by racism and sexism but are Cartesians, thinking for ourselves, or Kantians, legislating morality for ourselves. And we contradict it because we also know that Difference provokes both desire and disgust, so that to blame someone for responding inappropriately to difference is pretty much to blame them for being human.

    4. I am not saying that we should rest on our anti-Semitic, sexist or racist laurels. It would be good if he could say, “Hey, shit, I didn’t realize I was carrying this anti-Semitic stuff at all, but I guess I am.” Better to be “light” about it than ram it down his throat. Better to stand with him and make it clear that we’re in this racist, sexist world together and that it was he who got caught with the goods (the bads) in his hands. This is one way – not the only way, I know – of understanding Levinas’s “responsibility for the responsibility of the other”.

    5. I am certainly not opposed to sanctions, punishments, etc, especially for repeated cases in which a person fails to appreciate that s/he does have responsibility for their part in the oppressive system. I’m not sure your rockstar counts for that.

    Last night’s version was much funnier and more personal. Maybe I sholud thank the internet-crashing-god it didn’t go through.

  7. Texas

    Please watch Yoav Shamir’s Defamation and learn about how the ADL and other organizations are using the adjective “anti-Semite” for anyone critical of Israel. What the ADL and the Israel Lobby are doing is diluting the severity anti-semitism. Their baseless claims that anti-Zionists are also by definition anti-Semites is the precise cause of what you are describing above. The solution is to disband this Israel Lobby and these organizations who pretend to speak on behalf of the Jewish people, and protect them, as a basis for their political agenda. It is up to us Jews within the US, especially us, to make sure anti-semitism is not used as a tool in their political game.

  8. I would add four points: I think Jews don’t fit the current categories used to discuss marginalization and, as a result, their marginalization often is overlooked. Being Jewish is not being of a certain race (and anti Jewish sentiment often is not a form of racism); it’s not being a certain gender or having a certain gender orientation; it’s not being of a certain class; it’s not necessarily being of a certain religion (cultural Jews); it’s also not necessarily being colonized. So, Jewish marginalization becomes invisible to some who see marginalization through these categories.

    Second, as is evident from my posts about France and elsewhere, I am concerned about rising anti Jewish sentiment in a variety of places around the world, but I think the ADL survey may well have been flawed. If so, it exaggerates or distorts the phenomenon, which is not useful.

    Third, those of us who teach need to get used to the fact that for students, WWII and the Shoah are pretty far back in history. They just don’t know much about either of them.

    Fourth, I’m experiencing the same thing as John, namely, students who think if you teach positive things about Jews or negative things about antisemitism there’s an implicit Israel apologetic function–or, worse, a whitewashing function–to your teaching. I’m going to have to think more about that for my future teaching (after my sabbatical!).

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