Monday, December 31, 2018

On Alice Walker versus LeBron James

Alice Walker, the renowned African-American author of The Color Purple, has come in for sharp criticism once it became widely known that she was an inveterate antisemite. Her sins on this respect were blatant, and despite her celebrated stature in the Black community few defended her (even as she tried to pull a Full Livingstone and assert that her ravings about the Talmud teaching Jews that they can rape babies is actually "criticism of Israel").

Indeed, by and large I've been pleased by the caliber of commentary on Walker -- from Roxane Gay's early contribution that she's taken to at least noting Walker's antisemitism any time she talks about her, to Nylah Burton's longer meditation in NY Mag on how Walker's antisemitism intersects with her own personal history. The consensus view seems to be that while much of Walker's work is important and remains important, she is pretty clearly an unrepentant antisemite and that needs to be acknowledged. It is, sadly, part of her legacy, and not one that anyone should defend.

Meanwhile, LeBron James quoted some rap lyrics that referred to "getting that Jewish money." Upon being informed that this was considered by Jews to be an antisemitic trope, he immediately apologized, and for the most part Jews moved on.
"Apologies, for sure, if I offended anyone. That's not why I chose to share that lyric. I always [post lyrics]. That's what I do. I ride in my car, I listen to great music, and that was the byproduct of it. So, I actually thought it was a compliment, and obviously it wasn't through the lens of a lot of people. My apologies. It definitely was not the intent, obviously, to hurt anybody."
This, too, struck me as how it should be. I'm not saying that this apology would have earned a perfect 10 in my Rate That Apology series, but given the scale of the wrong, it was fine. James made a mistake, he apologized for the mistake, and we accepted the apology (hell, even the rapper who wrote the lyrics apologized too!). His wrong was nowhere near as bad as Walker's (nor does he have Walker's history as a repeat offender on this score), and he didn't defensively double down when people raised concerns. So on my end: no muss, no fuss.

Here, though, there were some writers who seemed very angry that Jews weren't dragging James harder. Dov Hikind -- a (hardly) Democratic New York Assemblyman -- was irate that liberal Jews weren't "slamming" James over the event (given that Hikind has worn blackface to a party and has past links to a extremist Jewish terrorist organization, to say he lives in a glass house here is an insult to the durability of glass). 

James quickly apologized, saying he didn't understand the historical context of the slur, or even that it was offensive.
The NBA and James' Los Angeles Lakers accepted that lame excuse, and now want to move on. No mandatory sensitivity training for James, no scrutiny of pro basketball for evidence of a broader problem. Starbucks should cry foul.
If Starbucks only sin was repeating and then immediately apologizing for repeating offensive musical lyrics, maybe they'd have reason to cry foul. But I digress.

Finley links James to a supposed explosion of antisemitism in the American Black community, starting with Alice Walker. But I think it's actually quite notable how differently the two have been treated -- a difference that reflects extremely well on the Black community and American liberals.

Walker's antisemitism was extreme, conscious, and repeated. James' was inadvertent, mundane, and idiosyncratic. James apologized immediately. Walker has shown no remorse. And so while James has basically been forgiven, Walker has been justifiably excoriated. That's how it should be. And it's all the more striking given that -- with all due respect to King James -- Alice Walker is a far more impactful figure on the Black civil rights movement. At least among the intellectual/political class, it's a far bigger deal to call out Alice Walker than LeBron James. And yet -- proportionality was preserved. The serious offender got serious censure. The more minor misstep was dealt with more gently.

It's things like these that give me this strange feeling of hope. Yes, Alice Walker's statements about Jews are monstrously antisemitic. But despite her celebrated status she really isn't being defended, and her attempt to deflect by citing her Good Progressive bona fides and righteous loathing of Israel didn't bear significant fruit. Yes, it's a troublesome that many people don't know why Jews squirm when folks talk about us holding all the money. But it's good when their first response, upon seeing us squirm, is to apologize -- not to lecture us about how we're just too sensitive and should understand it's a compliment and don't we know we really are all rich-os anyway? And yes, there are terrible columns being written by defenders of the Women's March suggesting that putative Jewish concern about antisemitism is actually a Putin con job. But the authors of those columns are -- remarkably enough -- apparently responsive to Jewish anger at the commentary. These conversations are happening, and they -- slowly, fitfully -- are bearing fruit.

Meanwhile, I don't know who Nolan Finley is (and I do know that Dov Hikind is basically a troll). But people of their ilk seem -- for my taste -- far too excited at the prospect of Black antisemitism. They just love the opportunity to drag on Black people and to feel righteous while doing so. It can't even all be traced back to cynical opportunism against political opponents: LeBron James isn't a particularly political figure, and yet nonetheless there is a clear thrill in getting to call him out, and an equally clear frustration that other Jews are not by and large joining in.

This feeling of thrill, this excessive focus on antisemitism when it emanates from Blacks, is a form of racism -- one that is identical in form to the feeling of thrill over and excessive focus on Jewish or Israeli misdeeds serving as a form of antisemitism. We should recognize it for what it is, because we have quite intimate knowledge of it. And that shouldn't be viewed as an apologia for anyone's antisemitism. But it is a problem when people try to treat LeBron James as a persona non grata in a world where Jim Hagedorn is elected to Congress, when Hagedorn's wrongs are both objectively more severe and completely unapologized for.

We all know why this occurs. As I've written before: people of color can be antisemitic, but they're also more vulnerable to disproportionate, overwrought, hyperbolic or excessively unforgiving attacks on the subject of antisemitism because of racism. The same, in reverse, is true of Jews. It doesn't mean anyone gets a pass, but it is something those of us who write on these subjects have to be mindful of.

I think that the comparative treatment of Alice Walker versus LeBron James -- that (most) people have recognized just how ugly Walker's words were, and (most) people have recognized that James' sin was comparatively minor and not worth a huge stink over -- is a good example of how to do this right. And if we can keep that trend up -- that would make for a nice 2019, wouldn't it?

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