[Four answers to a question that has puzzled generations of (((sociologists))). Adapted from the archives.]
1. The “classic” explanation: modernization causes antisemitism (Adorno and Horkheimer)
As modernization proceeds, the modern world demands model workers and citizens who will be ever-more perfect cogs in the industrial machine. This, in turn, requires ever-more repression of anti-social drives; the level of repression rises to levels difficult for human beings to cope with. Unbearable levels of repression fuels brooding on the traits that are to be repressed, and the more we brood, the greater our need to project such traits onto others to feel clear ourselves — or so Adorno and Horkheimer claim.
Like any society, a modern society needs to justify itself to its denizens and train them to serve as its cogs. The characteristically modern ideologies will package justification and training in some doctrine to the effect that the world is rational. Unforunately, these cogs are placed in schizophrenogenic conditions if it turns out the world is not rational! In an irrational world, good-boy progressives who wish to continue to believe the world is rational will have to suppress the reality-principle which ordinarily would ensure beliefs and observations remain in sync. In the absence of the reality-principle, delusions fester, erratic behavior appears, and psychoses develop.
Thus, conclude the boys from Frankfurt, in a modern society the masses are increasingly projecting morally unclean anti-social traits onto others (due to the pressure of pro-social conformity) and succumbing to irrational patterns of thinking, reminiscent of paranoias or schizophrenias (due to the strain of adhering to a continually-falsified ideology). A modern man’s neuroses and psychoses make him prone to conspiracy theories about filthy, nasty strangers. When the targets of all these neuroses and psychoses happen to be fine gentlemen of the Hebrew faith, voilà: antisemitism.
Adorno and Horkheimer have little to say about how/why/whether conspiracy theories about filthy, nasty strangers end up directed at one social group rather than another. As a result, the duo just barely managed to beat Sartre in the race to develop the world’s first Judenfrei theory of antisemitism.
Such theories have two interesting properties.
- They rule out a priori any possibility that a victim of antisemitism might have provoked his assailants. No one to whom antisemitic feelings are directed can ever bear any responsibility; the eventual target of the “disease” plays no role in its etiology.
- They are very easily ported over to other branches of the Left’s victim-hierarchy.
[Editor’s Note: the blog feels obliged to remind its readers that severe mental illnesses are typically caused by rare genetic variants, that equivocating between X causes a mental illness and X causes symptoms analogous to a mental illness is a dangerous intellectual sin — and, while we are interjecting, that sometimes life in the shtetl really is filthy.]
2. The Marxisant explanation: “Antisemitism is the socialism of idiots”
Say a man has been knocking on doors all over town, looking for work, but no one hires him. What went wrong? Should he have woken up earlier, knocked on more doors, dressed sharper, had an extra cup of coffee? Or is his failure to find employment a result of macroeconomic phenomena?
A normal guy blames most of his problems on proximate causes. This is sensible; proximate causes are very salient, for one thing. (They may also be the only aspect of his situation he has any control over.) Social scientists like to flatter themselves that they understand the deep, systemic causes of the problems the masses face (and which the masses wrongly link to local circumstances). Trying to encompass and integrate all the different timescales along which causal explanations operate is a tricky business.
Anyway: what happens if you’re stuck in the middle? Neither normie nor scientist, you are suspicious enough to look beyond the proximate causes, but unable to find the road that would lead you to an ultimate explanation.
Let’s say you’ve observed that Adam can’t find work, Bob can’t find work, and Chad can’t find work. According to orthodox Marxist theory, if you do realize that personal details about ABC don’t explain the general economic pattern ABC are a part of, but you’re not able to trace the causes as far back as the capitalist social system, you are likely to follow out chains of economic relationships and peter out on some highly visible middleman. Dan the foreman wouldn’t hire Chad because Mr. Edwards, the owner of Dan’s company, ordered him to cut back production — because Fitzwick & Sons, his biggest customer, just went bust — because Mr. Gerstein, Fitzwick’s banker, canceled his line of credit. If you start to get tired and confused around here, you’ll just remember it was Mr. Gerstein’s fault. That greedy jew!
If “the greedy jews” are overrepresented among these highly visible, highly memorable middlemen you bump into when you try to understand the interrelated causes of everyday economic problems, you end up substituting the demographic traits of the middlemen for the economic structure within which they are cogs.
Marx and his fellow socialists developed this genre of explanation in the context of factional politics. Among these rabble-rousers, factions came to be identified not only with a leader (Marx, Bebel, Lassalle), a constituency (the cigar workers, the porters, the Irish) or a characteristic political strategy (bomb-throwing, the 40-hour workweek, the general strike), but also with a trademark interpretation of the nature of the dysfunctional society they hoped to lead into the chaos of revolution.
It’s worth reflecting on the rhetorical effectiveness of this explanation as a memetic weapon in a struggle between different varieties of rabble-rousers. It offers the carrot —”You’ve seen farther than others! You’ve started the journey!”— and the stick —”If you stop here, you’re a fool!”. It belittles antisemitism as a garbled version of the truth… yet still acknowledges that it is a version of the truth. Antisemites have made a mistake, but their mistake was to be lured in by the specious resemblance between the basic structure of the antisemitic diagnosis and the truth of “scientific socialism”; their very error reveals that in their hearts, they are natural socialists! Never make the mistake of seeking to demolish a position when your goal is really to coopt it, along with all its adherents.
3. The provincialism explanation (Zionism)
Every county hates all the minorities (ethnic, linguistic, religious, and so on) that it comes into contact with in daily life. Differences cause uncertainty and friction; they are a conduit for contempt and ridicule. But most minorities here are the majority there, and this gives them (a) someplace to flee to, (b) an imagined community, (c) and, in the Westphalian system of sovereign states, bargaining chips that they can use to protect their co-nationals elsewhere.
Jews, on the other hand, were minorities everywhere. The tensions of coexistence relentlessly inflamed each nation’s most unsympathetic impulses towards its jewish minority, but without any countervailing pressure, as with all other ethnic minorities, that would inspire sympathy and respect.
There are several refreshing things about this explanation. First, it acknowledges that hatred is normal. (Diversity+proximity=conflict, always and everywhere.) Second, it tries to explain the different degrees of antipathy various groups endure in terms of differences between the groups.
Because the theory that antisemitism is just an exaggerated form of common provincial attitudes towards the out-group was popularized by Theodor Herzl, there is a strong association between Herzl’s theory of antisemitism and Herzl’s Zionist political movement. Zionism relied heavily on the theory in its arguments for a jewish state. If all the differences between jews and other peoples were caused by their statelessness then if the jews were subsequently to acquire their own state, any differences between antisemitism and other provincial attitudes towards minority populations would disappear.
Zionism succeeded as a political movement; but as a grand venture in hypothesis-testing, results to date have been… well, let’s just say that the existence of the state of Israel has done little to confirm Herzl’s overarching hypothesis that jewish peculiarities stem from the jews’ abnormal statelessness. It’s quite curious, for example, that the jews are the only nation in the world whose far-flung minority populations use the power of the states wherein they reside to protect the motherland rather than vice-versa.
Whether or not you think such anomalies refute Herzl’s theory, do not dismiss the early Zionist literature entirely. Jews drew attention to national majorities’ defense of expatriate enclaves in order to make counterfactual predictions about what the world would look like if there was someone to defend the heretofore stateless jews. A more sober reason to care about the phenomenon: intervention in defense of ethnic enclaves is a challenge to the formal power of the sovereign who has jurisdiction over the enclave, and a seedbed for the growth of informal power networks which seek to arbitrate (a) the right of intervention and (b) the standards of reciprocal toleration to which the mutual threat of intervention gives rise.
4. The Albigensian hypothesis
When was the last time a Cathar invited you to have dinner with his family? Did you ever go to a sleepover at a Cathar’s house? Do you have any Cathar friends at all? No, of course not. The last Cathars were put to death more than five hundred years ago. For this reason, a question like “How could anyone be so heartless as to kill off the Cathars?” does not have any emotional resonance. The successful genocides leave no victims.
What is difficult to explain about the jews is not that they were quite seriously despised for nearly two thousand years, but rather that the Christians never wiped them out.