It’s unlikely that anyone will call you noble for kicking a man while he’s down though a few might call you brave for throwing rocks at the windows of society. The moment that others decide to follow suit and throw rocks at that window with you, the power, and thus the perspective, have merely shifted.
These days, victimization is a woolly business. Ancient man’s method of victimizing his fellows, though acted out in complicated ways, was probably quite simple in origin. Today, we no longer possess his same abject terror of menstrual blood. Though we might have retained his shame of feces, we’ve developed private enough ways of dealing with it. It was easy enough for ancient man to point at the person or object which caused him confusion or shame and hide, ostracize or attack.
Today, these reactions aren’t good enough. The victim has had ample room to speak and most value systems—especially in the west—are designed around the protection of the individual against arbitrary cruelty. How does one then go about victimizing someone in a world like this? To victimize someone else, one now has to paint oneself as the victim and whatever chosen Other as the real agent of cruelty.
Western bigotry subterraneously creeps into modern discourse through precisely this method. Those doing the victimizing always feel that they have been wronged and that they are, in fact, the victims.
The Holocaust was far too recent. No matter how much it pains us, I’m afraid it will always be necessary to see it as far too recent forever. How else does one arm oneself against the sway of public opinion? Just as disturbing as the surreptitiousness of the death camps was the popularity of anti-Semitism at the time. The Third Reich was, frighteningly enough, not as abrupt of a force as it would make us comfortable to think. They were working with ideological soil that had been seeded, tilled and watered for them in nineteenth-century Germany.
Everyone who had something to say about the Jews felt like so many members of a mob of stone-throwers at the windows of society which had started with a sole value to which they’d attached themselves. This mob could not afford to venerate the Jews for the cunningness by which they survived so many moves, changes and cultural appropriations. The mob—always dormant but ready to rally at the first instant of excitement—rather, were threatened by this very Jewish strength. The vulgar commonplace was that the Jews had arrived at a place of power and were, thus, doing the victimizing.
Modern anti-Semitism has survived in precisely the same form that the Third Reich appropriated for what they perceived to be a revolution. It merely cloaks itself in a multitude of metaphysical pieties and arms itself with an air of imminent revolution. The perceived ‘revolution’ is always thought to be the revolution of the victims.
Heinrich Heine, a German Jew, took his nation’s temperature in the nineteenth-century, sometimes arming himself with flippant wit concerning individual bigots. His greater weariness manifested itself in his now famous prophecy of 1832 concerning the character of German nationalism found in The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany:
‘Christianity—and this is its greatest merit—has somewhat mitigated that brutal Germanic love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. Then the ancient stony gods will rise from the forgotten debris and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes and finally Thor with his giant hammer will jump up and smash the Gothic cathedrals…
Do not smile at my advice—the advice of a dreamer who warns you against Kantians, Fichteans and philosophers of nature. Do not smile at the visionary who anticipates the same revolution in the realm of the visible as has taken place in the spiritual. Thought precedes action as lightning precedes thunder. German thunder is of true Germanic character; it is not very nimble, but rumbles along ponderously. Yet, it will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world’s history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.’
Even this torrential prose is more remote than his description of German patriotism in Ludwig Boerne (1840):
‘False revolutionaries who bawled about love and faith but whose love was nothing but hate of everything foreign, whose faith consisted of nothing but unreason, and whose ignorance knew nothing better than to invent the burning of books … The words “Fatherland,” “Germany,” “Faith of ancestors,” and so forth, will always electrify the vague masses of the people far more certainly than the words “Mankind,” “World Citizenship,” “Reason of the Sons,” and ‘Truth!” … I mean to say by this that the representatives of nationality are far more deeply rooted in the German soil that the representatives of cosmopolitanism, and that the latter will always be beaten by the former unless they swiftly forestall them.’
One hundred years later, Heinrich Heine, who held the conviction that where books are burned people soon follow, would become the author of burned books. His voice, for a time, would be silenced, along with the voice of the innocent victim revealed constantly in the texts of the Judaic tradition.
Read Part 2 here