Reading white supremacy against the grain

I read a jaw-dropping book by Howard Jacobson called J. Jacobson is known for writing about what Philip Roth terms “that topic called The Jews.” So this dystopian fantasy set in some kind of Anglo-Teutonic coastal village seems like a real departure at first. Until you notice that every single character has a Jewish name. And that a very Jewish sense of dread hangs over everything. And that the one word never used in the book is “Jew.”

J jacketSpoilers! In this world, Jews were eradicated in an apocalyptic second Holocaust about two generations ago. The reader’s dread thickens and takes shape as Jacobson, slowly and with immense craft, pays out details about life as it is now. To defuse collective guilt, the authorities instituted a “moral hypnosis” called Operation Ishmael. Under Ishmael, the remaining populace was encouraged to apologize constantly, yet maintain a sense that there was nothing to apologize for; to adopt Jewish surnames without knowing why; to embrace the “Benign Visual Arts” (landscapes, flowers) and anodyne popular music; to forget everything about “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.” The plot concerns two lovers who discover not only that they are Jewish, but that their relationship is being engineered to re-start the Jewish population, thus restoring an “equipoise of hate” to a restless and increasingly violent country.

Jacobson takes care to show that WHAT HAPPENED—or what one protagonist’s father calls, among other things, “the great pisstastrophe”—was fueled by the mass dissemination of anti-Semitic stereotypes (there’s a suggestion that Twitter played its part). When Esme, the chief engineer of the main characters’ romance, begins her search for survivors of the purge, she’s hampered by her reliance on old documents:

A children’s story from the previous century, for example, cited as distinguishing features the puffy lips, the fleshy eyelids, the low, receding forehead, the large ears like the handles of a coffee cup . . . the short arms, the bow-leggedness, the shuffling gait, the jabbering voice, the sickly-sweet odor.

And when another character falters in her acceptance of the new society, she’s sent to “Credibility Fatigue” classes. To the character’s husband, the woman teaching the classes explains:

I show them classified documents and photographs: this is what those whom you fear were the innocent victims of what happened were responsible for, I say; this is the damage they wrought . . . this is their history, repeated and repeated again wherever they set foot, sorrowful to themselves but a thousand times more sorrowful to those whose necks they trod on and who, when they could finally take no more, trod back, that’s if they did.

Clearly, this is state propaganda leading to state-sponsored terror. The way Jacobson draws a portrait of this society’s sickness, line by razor-sharp line, is one of the most exquisite things about his book.

Now step back and give me some room, because I’m going to go against the grain. I would like to call this novel, which I admire immensely, a great work of moral imagination. What holds me back is a specific personal discomfort. In yet another playing out of stereotypes, a teacher of the Benign Arts muses:

It needs to be said that we were not alone in our perplexity. What to do with those about whom something needed to be done; how to put a break on their ambitions; how to express our displeasure with their foreign policy (bizarre that they should have had a foreign policy given that they were foreigners themselves and had what they called a country only by taking someone else’s) . . .

I happen to believe that Jews did take over someone else’s country. (“To sum up: one group of refugees found a much-needed home. But in the process, a new group of refugees was created.”) And I also believe that anti-Semitism is a far less pressing problem in the world—especially America—today than anti-Black racism and white supremacy. White supremacy, as defined in the Race & Fiction Writing group I moderate (with language from White People Challenging Racism) is the system of domination and exploitation of people of color by white people in order to maintain white peoples’ position of relative wealth, power, and privilege. It is the cornerstone upon which this country was built. (For more on Jews and white privilege, check out Paul Kivel and John O. Calmore.)

So it was hard for me to buy into Jacobson’s vision completely. I’ve long thought that American Jews are too hung up on our victimized past and unwilling to face our privileged present. What did strike me, though, was how meticulously Jacobson lays out an architecture of hate. He shows us a society constructed around the othering of its own members. He shows us exactly how that society gives itself permission to commit genocide. As one of the perpetrators relates:

I could have tried to reason with the crowd—There’s only a child in there. . . . Unlikely to have made any difference but I could have tried. But the shouts and smell of smoke had a powerful effect on me. I don’t say they excited me, but they gave a sort of universality to what I was feeling. I am who I am because I am not them—well, I was not alone in feeling that. We were all who we were because we were not them. So why did that translate into hate? I don’t know, but when everyone’s feeling the same thing it can appear to be reasonableness. Can you understand that? What everyone’s doing becomes a common duty.

This could be a Southern white man talking about a lynching. This is how racist hatred becomes state violence. “I am who I am because I am not them”—Jacobson repeats the phrase several times, because it’s key to his anatomy of ethnic hatred. “You have to see a version of yourself,” Esme instructs her secret agents, “—where you’ve come from or where you might, if you aren’t careful, end up—before you can do the cheek-to-cheek of hate.” “Why such murderous hatred in the first place?” asks the art teacher, reflecting on a visit to the pub with one of the Jewish lovers. “I could only suppose that the living evidence of someone and somewhere else—the someone and somewhere else those pub regulars could smell on us the minute we entered the room—entirely undermined their confidence in the sufficiency of who and what they were.” The oppressor relies on the oppressed for self-definition.

What happens when, as posited in J, the oppressor succeeds in wiping out the oppressed? As a young woman just beginning to question the country’s dangerously unsettled state, Esme is run over by a motorcycle. While in a coma she figures it all out:

Now that she had the leisure to think, Esme Nussbaum was no longer looking for explanations. You only need an explanation when there’s a mystery, and there was no mystery. How could it have worked out otherwise? You can’t have a poisoned stomach and a sweet breath. You can’t lop off a limb and expect you will be whole. You can’t rob and not make someone the poorer, and when it’s yourself that you rob then it’s yourself you impoverish.

Of the thoughts that flew at her, as the weeks passed, this last was the most persistent, skimming her cheek with its quilled wing, as though it wanted to scratch her into waking—we are the poorer by what we took away.

Derrick Bell calls this the oppressor’s penalty. A character in his Faces at the Bottom of the Well comments that slavery “tried to dehumanize blacks, and failed, and didn’t try to dehumanize whites, but succeeded.” Spiritually, emotionally, we whites are the poorer by what we have taken from Blacks. We have robbed ourselves. J is a literary tour de force, but to me the most interesting thing about it is what it doesn’t say.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *