by Joan Harvey
In my first column for 3 Quarks Daily I wrote that we are still fighting both the Civil War and WWII. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. puts it: “two hideous demons slumber under the floorboards of Western culture: anti-Semitism and anti-Black racism.” We have learned that any steps forward will be met with enormous resistance and backwards pressure. Gates quotes Ernst Cassirer: “every developmental step [of modern societies] can be reversed.” We saw this clearly post-Reconstruction, when everything possible was done to limit the lives of Black[i] people, and again following the two terms of the first Black president, when Americans chose an openly racist birther backed by the Ku Klux Klan and Neo-Nazis. A leap backwards was true as well for European Jews, who before the Second World War believed they had successfully assimilated into secular society.
Any reader of history cannot escape the echoes, back and forth, of racism, white nationalism, German and American ideas of purity. For example, jazz was reviled by the Nazis, and listening to it was a crime. Americans loved jazz, but as late as the 1950s Lena Horne couldn’t go into the dining room in the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas. Black musicians had to reach and leave the stage through a separate enclosed corridor. Artie Shaw, who by all accounts was not at all racist and performed early on with Billie Holiday when most musical groups were segregated, at the same time hid the fact that he was Jewish. Ava Gardner reports that he sat silent at a table of bigwigs making antisemitic[ii] comments and even joined in rather than speak up and give himself away[iii].
Pressure Point, a film made in 1962 and directed by Hubert Cornfield, is a mostly unknown but quite brilliant dissection of both race and Nazism in America. Sidney Poitier portrays a psychiatrist who (in a flashback) has been given a job in 1942 in a federal penitentiary. He has purposely been assigned a patient who is openly a white supremacist, played vividly by Bobby Darin. (Neither character is named in the film so I will refer to the roles by the names of the actors.)
Darin is in jail for sedition; at the time the Nazi cause was not condoned by the American government. Referring to the photo of Roosevelt that Poitier has hanging on his wall, Darin remarks, “Now the Jews put that cripple in the White House you people think you got it made, don’t you?” Poitier is constantly subject to racial taunts from Darin, who suggests that he go back to Africa. As a doctor trained in objectivity and there to help Darin, Poitier attempts to look at the hatred Darin espouses as a psychological problem. Poitier is, after all, a psychiatrist, not a sociologist. But in spite of all his professionalism, Darin gets under his skin, and Poitier, of course, realizes that the problem is bigger than one man’s twisted psyche. He also increasingly recognizes how far racism extends into his working life. His white boss explains to him that he took him on as an experiment: “I felt I was fighting a noble cause when I insisted on hiring you. . . .Apart from taking the responsibility of giving the job to a Negro, I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that I might have been wrong, that you wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Now don’t tell me you’re going to let me down.”
“Just because you’re a Negro, is what he didn’t say,” Poitier thinks to himself.
Darin suffers from insomnia, and Poitier is able to help him by showing him that much of his conflict comes from his brutal father and weak, somewhat incestuous mother. Once Darin is able to sleep again, he becomes a model prisoner, but Poitier knows that his essential racism and hatred is unchanged. Darin brilliantly needles Poitier, and after some racist remark, Poitier asks, “Can’t a Negro be a psychiatrist?”
“He can,” Darin says, “but where is he going to get his patients outside of a federal penitentiary?”
“Psychiatry is an expensive thing.” Darin goes on. “Your people can’t afford it, you know. So the best you can be is a prison psychiatrist in the worst office they’ve got. Do you want to help me? Why don’t you just help yourself?” Darin makes economic arguments, based in antisemitism, to justify his Nazism; America is still emerging from the Great Depression and Hitler “will save us from those who own the banks, who own the newspapers, who own the White House.” Meanwhile Poitier realizes that while Darin is a psychopath, “wherever militant and organized hate exists, a psychopath is the leader. . . .And if 100 disgruntled and frustrated individuals fall in line behind one psychopath we are then concerned with the actions of 101 psychopaths.”
Some of the more striking lines are from Darin, who points out the fragility of Poitier’s achievements: “Where you going to find a bigger lie than the one this country’s founded on? All men are created equal. Everything the country’s supposed to live by. . . Can you walk on a bus or a train or a streetcar and sit down with a little dignity like a free human being or a free man? You live in a ghetto. You live where they let you live. . . They got you so mixed up that you’re singing ‘My Country Tis of Thee’ while they walk all over you.” In one of the most telling parts of the film, Poitier refuses to recommend Darin for parole because he recognizes that Darin is still a violent racist. The white men in charge of the prison, however, tell Poitier he’s making it all too personal, and they’re convinced by Darin’s good behavior. “Take it easy,” they tell Poitier.
“Take it easy,” Poitier says. “That’s what they did in Germany. They took it easy.” Darin pretends, to the white male committee, to be cured of racism, while telling Poitier in private that he and his fellow Nazis will remake the country by getting rid of certain people. “Won’t be only the Jews. You’re going to make it easier for us. You won’t have to wear any armband.” When the parole committee decides to release him, Darin gloats to Poitier, in a way that hits home. “All those people you’ve been working with, who’d they believe? The big Black boy whose supposed to be running this place or the white Christian American?” We learn later that after his release Darin beat an old man to death and was hanged for it. The slightly upbeat ending is not convincing after all that has gone before.
Pressure Point portrays in a complex manner how racism against Blacks and Nazism was and is intertwined. One main difference (and of course there are many), as the Darin character points out, is that Blacks are visible in their non-whiteness, while Jews are often able to pass, if they wish, as part of what Isabel Wilkerson calls the dominant caste. Jews are able to convert (though of course Nazi race laws didn’t recognize this) whereas, as Wilkerson quotes LeBron James, “if you are an African-American man or African-American woman, you will always be that.”
In her book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Wilkerson shows how the Nazis were influenced by American race laws and drew from them. A book on white supremacy by American Lothrop Stoddard was made a standard text in the Reich’s school curriculum (Wilkerson, 80). The 1916 work of another American eugenicist on cleansing the gene pool of undesirables “held a special place in the Fürher’s library” (80). Hitler praised the near genocide of Native Americans and was impressed by the lynching of black Americans. “Nazi Germany looked to America for inspiration” (Wilkerson, 81). Nazi scholars researched American race laws in order to make their own.
Racism and Nazism clearly intersect in the alt-right neo-Nazi movement of today. This has been influenced in part by traditionalist philosophy touted by Alexander Dugin in Russia. Traditionalism, besides espousing white nationalism, is opposed to modernity and filled with a kind of mysticism. A film Dugin produced and narrated, speculating that Hitler had access to “ancient knowledge,” was broadcast on Russia’s two leading federal channels. Dugin has influenced Putin as well as Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, who helped to bring the white nationalist movement to prominence in America. Spencer was even formerly married to Dugin translator and American promoter, Nina Kouprianova[iv].
QAnon is the crazy next-in-line in the ideology of white supremacy. It too:
has its roots in much older antisemitic conspiracy theories. The idea of the all-powerful, world-ruling cabal comes straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document purporting to expose a Jewish plot to control the world that was used throughout the 20th century to justify antisemitism. Another QAnon canard – the idea that members of the cabal extract the chemical adrenochrome from the blood of their child victims and ingest it to extend their lives – is a modern remix of the age-old antisemitic blood libel.[v]
Black people have been labeled as savage and animal, while on the other side there is a long history of equating Jews with materialism and calculation, “whose end result was to reduce humans to the mechanistic products of external causes,” as David Nirenberg puts it in his book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. In his discussion of early-twentieth-century philosophy, Nirenberg writes, “Familiar, for example, was the stigmatization of abstract, logical, or allegedly hyperrational thought as ‘Jewish’” (449). Heidegger, who already in 1929 “made clear his views on liberal modernity’s pernicious and alienating effects on Germany’s youth and culture” (Nirenberg, 450), is just one example of this.
Hegel, while not an antisemite, and who, unlike many, considered Jews human, at the same time found Jews’ refusal to commit to Christianity “despicable” (Nirenberg, 406). A long tradition in philosophy found that “Jews provided the best example of the stumbling blocks on the road to philosophical truth” (Nirenberg, 409). Schopenhauer, who wanted to move away from the “world of particulars and spatial temporal objects, and toward the universal and undifferentiated,” found that Idealism “will remain a ‘paradox in the West,’ as a consequence of the present and unavoidable realist Jewish position.” For him, philosophy was infected with “a Jewish stench” (Nirenberg, 410). Nirenberg’s exploration of the role of anti-Judaism in philosophical thought is not, he points out, “to uncover hidden ‘anti-Semites’ in the history of thought,” but rather “to make plausible the thesis that widespread habits of thought about Judaism shaped philosophers’ potential understandings of the world” (412).
A group of philosophers based in Vienna in the 1930s is the subject of a recent book, The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle, by David Edmonds. Professor Schlick was the leader of the Vienna Circle, philosophers interested in logical (or empirical) positivism, influenced at first by Bertrand Russell and later by Wittgenstein. (Karl Popper, whose ideal of an open society was taken up by George Soros, another Jew now demonized by the right, went to some meetings, but was never really part of the group). The group was composed of many leading intellectuals of the day in the time when Vienna was still a vibrant city. Most were Jewish, leftist, admirers of Einstein, believers in science and math, and opposed to metaphysical interpretations of reality. Schlick, while a renowned thinker, was a rather conservative, orderly man, who did not want the philosophers involved in politics. He was murdered by a disgruntled student with mental problems who was jealous of a girl’s interest in Schlick. The murderer, Johann Nelböck, had not been granted the job appointment he wished for and blamed Schlick for that as well. However, after the murder, Nelböck became a hero, because it was falsely believed that Schlick was Jewish, and that he was promoting a “Jewish philosophy. ” An intellectual paper at the time describes it this way:
The Jew is a born anti-metaphysician and loves logicality, mathematicality, formalism, and positivism in philosophy…We would like to point out, however that we are Christians living in a Christian German state, and that it is up to us to determine which philosophy is good and appropriate (Edmonds, 176).
Nelböck was charged and jailed, but later released because of a petition for clemency, and specifically because he was “a man of strong national motives and explicit anti-Semitism.” While today’s Kyle Rittenhouse acted from explicitly racial motives, whereas Nelböck’s motives were only made racist in retrospect, Rittenhouse was able to raise bail and obtain release due to the great support for his murders from the racist American right. We can only hope that when he does go to trial, justice will prevail.
A meme posted by a Facebook friend today shows Jungians as playful dancing mystics, and Freudians as cold rational rule-bound authoritarians. I suspect this friend has never read any Freud, and would find it incomprehensible that she is following a tradition that equates rational soullessness with Jewishness, but these memes slide easily into our current discourse. Also today, Rittenhouse attorney John Pierce (who himself has issues with taxes, debt, physically assaulting a co-worker, child support, and domestic restraining orders[vi]) is posting Christmas photos of the Rittenhouse family on Twitter with a broadly smiling Kyle, and asking for more money. And today, as well, people who espouse factual rational ideas, basic things like Biden is not a socialist, or that the election was not rigged, are considered radicals and communists. Communism and socialism, traditionally associated with Jews, are now buzzwords for those who shout about Christian values, and the evils of healthcare and Black Lives Matter, and who follow the psychopath Trump. “Fantasies cost lives,” Claudia Rankine writes in her book Just Us. “Universalized whiteness, that racial imaginary, lives in every moment.” She goes on to quote the affect theorist Lauren Berlant, on interrupting patterns of belief: “To be forced into thought is to begin to formulate the event of feeling historical in the present” (Rankine, 329).
No group of people is either purely rational or irrational, and mysticism and the occult can also be found in some progressive movements. Poets such as Blake and Yeats have found great imaginal use for magic and metaphysics. But today’s very visible and very dangerous trend away from any form of rationalism, including basic science that saves lives, leads us back as well toward a lore of blood and purity. Rationalism is not something cold that destroys humanity, nor is it a specifically Jewish, anti–Christian trait. Like all groups of people, Jews are diverse, some secular and atheist, some deeply religious and mystical, some who oppress others, some who refuse to wear masks. Fortunately there has been much overcoming of antisemitic and anti-Black racism in post-War Germany and in the worldwide embrace of movements such as Black Lives Matter. But Germany is not immune from a resurgence of Nazism, and under Trump we’ve seen how overt racism has become increasingly acceptable again. Racism is irrational, but is also a way for those in power to maintain power. Einstein, who so inspired the Vienna Circle in the realm of physics and ideas, can inspire us in his anti-racism.
“The separation of the races is not a disease of the colored people,” Einstein told the graduates at commencement, “but a disease of the white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it” (Wilkerson, 379).
Edmonds, David. The Murder of Professor Schlick: The Rise and Fall of the Vienna Circle. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020.
Nirenberg, David. Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.
Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York: Random House, 2020.
[i]Whether or not to capitalize Black and not white is a very complicated and evolving issue. See Kwame Anthony Appiah’s discussion in The Atlantic: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/time-to-capitalize-blackand-white/613159/
[ii] Antisemitic, all one word, is now preferred to the former anti-Semitic, because the term Semitic has to do with pseudo-scientific racial categorizations
[iii] Peter Evans and Ava Gardner, Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations (Simon and Schuster, 2013), 216
[iv] Masha Gessen, The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017), 482