Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Master's Tools versus The Master's House

"The master's tools," Audre Lorde wrote, "will never dismantle the master's house." It's one of her more famous lines. I appreciate the appeal. I appreciate the poetry.

I've just never been convinced that it's right.

For starters, what tools aren't the master's? One of the perks of being master, it seems, is that one can grab any or all of the tools. Even if the slaves develop a tool of their own, the masters have proven quite adept at appropriating or co-opting it to preserve and ratify their own regime. "Color-blindness," for instance, didn't start off as one of the master's tools -- it was a radical attack on the very structure which underwrote slave power and white supremacy. A century and a half of ideological drift later, and now colorblindness is the ultimate master's tool.

Or take race itself. Lorde's essay is focused on the need to take race and racial identity (among other things) seriously if we are to remedy structures of racist exclusion. I couldn't agree more -- but isn't race the ultimate master's tool? It was the original instrument used to forge our system of racial supremacy itself. And again, I agree with Lorde that it would be impossible to tear down that structure without utilizing race as a central category of analysis. But that gets us to the opposite position: The master's tools are the only way to dismantle the master's house.

I was reflecting on this point when thinking about why I'm so committed to using the tools of progressive analysis against the problem of anti-Semitism, when so often those tools have been employed to justify, legitimize, and ratify anti-Semitic domination. One cannot be a progressive Jew today and not hear the sing-song snickers of the Jewish right calling you a deluded fool -- "why bother? What does the left have to do to prove they're not your friend?"

At one level, this betrays a naivete of the Jewish right, for the conservatives aren't their friends either. But I don't necessarily disagree with them that "the left", as constituted as a largely non-Jewish social movement, is not a friend of the Jews. It's long become clear to me that for the most part, people only care about anti-Semitism when the victims are people they like, and will excuse it when it happens to people they don't like. This isn't really different from how I view anti-racism commitments -- it's no accident that progressives don't seem to care about racism directed at Clarence Thomas, and it's no accident that conservatives seem to care about racism only when it's directed at Clarence Thomas. Most people are at most fair-weather friends. "Allies", primarily, exist in the mythical space that develops when a group's high-salience members and activities are generally liked by the ally.

The reason I use these tools, then, isn't because of some belief that the people who developed them or who mostly use them today are my friends. I use these tools because they work. Because they provide a more robust and realistic account of discrimination and oppression than their competitors, and anti-Semitism desperately needs to accounted for in a robust and realistic manner. If Jews ceded every instrument that had helped construct the edifice of anti-Semitic domination, we'd left with a rather pale and impotent toolbox. Why on earth would I be foolish enough to handicap myself so?

Lorde's essay, for example, makes a powerful argument for why the perspective of women like her -- and not just her, not simply a token -- is indispensable to doing progressive analysis right. If we're worried that people now feel they can exclude or marginalize Jewish voices (or at least, all but a few token Jewish voices who will tell non-Jewish audiences what they want to hear about Jews), this is an important tool in our toolkit. When progressive writers asked us to look at modern associations and to see how norms of exclusion and oppression are often woven into their histories without ever having been excised -- well, more than a few academic disciplines could stand to be reminded of that vis-a-vis the Jews. When progressive writers urged the broader community to stop reflexively assuming that all discrimination claims were just minorities "playing the race card", goodness knows that's a norm Jews are well accustomed to.

I am not a panglossian. I don't know if anti-Semitism will be cured in my lifetime, or even if we will see a net change in the right direction. But I do know that if anything is going to dismantle the house of anti-Semitism, it will be the tools the left has pioneered -- not because the left hasn't mastered anti-Semitism too, but because I believe we can use the tools better to liberate us than others can use  them to oppress us.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Just a quick note to say I'm very glad I came across your blog. Yours is a sober but not sombre voice that speaks in some fine clear tones. Thank you! (And: Phew!)