Saturday, January 16, 2016

"Crying" About Anti-Semitism Beyond the Dogwhistle

In the last Republican presidential debate, Ted Cruz took aim at "New York values" as a means of attacking Donald Trump. Several commenters leveled objections to the phrase, a controversy that the Jewish Telegraphic Agency covered with the following headline:
Ted Cruz says Donald Trump has ‘NY values,’ the Internet cries anti-Semitism.
I'll return to the details of Cruz's case in a moment, which is not clear-cut. But before we get there, something needs to be said about that headline. The Nation couldn't have framed it any better: the notion that Jews are always "crying" anti-Semitism; making mountains out of molehills and whining about imaginary anti-Semitism behind every rock is an ubiquitous feature of our public discourse. So much so that Jews have gotten very defensive about it; preemptively assuring others that they're not the sort of Jew who "calls everything anti-Semitic", that they absolutely understand we need to "tread lightly" around anti-Semitism talk. And so it is that, in contrast to the stereotype, Jews have in fact gotten exceptionally gun-shy when it comes to discourse about anti-Semitism, well aware that even the slightest whiff of the invocation will bring down a furious racket of "there they go again!" JTA's headline, intentionally or not, is demonstrative of just how much we've assimilated this narrative.

In any event, the question of anti-Semitism with respect to Cruz's comments is more complicated than it is given credit for by either side. Much of the discourse has centered around the "dog whistle" concept: that when Cruz said "New York", he meant (and his listeners heard) "Jew" (see, e.g., Jezebel's column "Ted, Just Say 'Jewish'"). People immediately made the link to Toby Ziegler's famous comment, in The West Wing's pilot, in response to a conservative lobbyist's derision towards Josh Lyman's "New York sense of humor":
"She meant 'Jewish'. When she said 'New York sense of humor', she was talking about you and me."
(Apropos my above point, I'd note that nobody quotes the next line: Josh quietly saying "You know what Toby, let's not even go there.").

I thought of that line too, but it was actually the second one that came to mind. The first was a statement by Colin Powell in response to Sarah Palin's denigration of the values of New Yorkers and other urban dwellers in favor of the "real Americans":
When [Gov. Palin] talked about small town values are good -- well most of us don't live in small towns. I was raised in the South Bronx, and there's nothing wrong with my value system from the South Bronx.
The Ziegler line is about dogwhistles; Cruz "meant 'Jewish'". But reducing the question of anti-Semitism or racism to what Cruz "meant" is a spectacularly thin way of conceptualizing the issue. The Powell quote, by contrast, gets at something more subtle: that whether there is a hidden meaning or not, the fact still remains that comments like Cruz's (or Palin's) are profoundly degrading -- and degrading to the specific sorts of people who distinctively live in places like New York. E.g., Jews. Or gays. Or Blacks. Or immigrants. And we might say that, at the very least, someone who really cared about Jews or Blacks or whomever would think in terms of the effects his statements would have on the group.

Whether there was an implied substitution of "Jew" for "New York" is in many ways a side issue. It is groups like the Jews, that is, the people who distinctively live in urban coastal centers, who are presented to the nation as worthy of scorn; and it is those people who will have to deal with the fallout. A dogwhistle sets out to harness anti-Semitism, this merely produces it anew. Surely, when Ted Cruz tells his audience that the value set which describe most Jews are contemptible, it is no far leap for people to accordingly conclude Jews are contemptible too.

The upshot of telling a national audience of partisans that "New York values" are bad values is eminently predictable, and it is not salutary -- for Jews or for many other minority groups disproportionately concentrated in and identified with our urban centers. And so we're left with two possibilities: Either Cruz thought of that. Or he didn't.

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