When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before … So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress.
It never fails. I always seem to lose control of my classes during the final week of the semester, and this year was no exception. It happened during the next-to-last meeting of my sophomore lit class when, while reviewing for the final, somehow the discussion turned to Ferguson, Missouri. Officially, I hadn’t intended to talk about Ferguson because the events were not directly related to the course. Unofficially, I knew I couldn’t talk about it because it’s almost impossible to fake intellectual objectivity when you’re fighting to stave off a volcanic eruption of molten rage.
But the issue came up anyway, and when several students began to express their dismay over why people from other cities were also protesting, I finally weighed in. What I said wasn’t particularly brilliant. I just talked about rioting as the language of people who had been denied any other voice, but afterwards one African-American student came up and thanked me anyway. Our university is disproportionately white, and she said that as an African-American, it was difficult to get white students to listen to her on this subject. That’s why we needed to hear people like me finally speaking up on campus.
I’m not repeating this story to make myself look good. Trust me, I know what I sounded like in class that day and it wasn’t very impressive. I may have wanted to sound like Cornel West, but what came out was more like a cheap Jimmy Stewart impression—all stammering and incoherence. But I want to consider the point my student made when she thanked me. While she couldn’t have known it, her position was almost identical to something I had read the previous night.
And I read it in a comic book.
The book is called Judenhass by Dave Sim and it’s being offered for free through the mobile app, Sequential. It was originally going to be the main focus of this week’s column, but given current events it will have to settle for a supporting role instead. Judenhass focuses on the history of anti-Semitism in Western culture (or “Jew hatred” as Sim puts it). In the book, Sim compiles a series of horrific, haunting illustrations of concentration camp victims while filling caption boxes with quotations from famous people. Some of the quotes are sympathetic or thoughtful, but the most memorable are full of highly inflammatory and racist sentiments. Of these latter quotations, the ones that really stick out are not the ones from Hitler, Himmler, and the rest, but rather from more respected people like Martin Luther, Voltaire, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Neville Chamberlain, Harry Truman, T.S. Eliot, and Marlon Brando.
While the inclusion of some of these are problematic—the Twain quote seems misinterpreted and the Brando quote is taken out of context—the cumulative effect is nevertheless undeniable. No one who finishes Judenhass should ever have to ask how the Holocaust ever happened. Sim makes clear that we were building towards the Holocaust, or the Shoah, for a long, long time.
Given that he’s not Jewish, Sim may seem like an odd choice to have created a book like Judenhass, but in the opening pages he explains his rationale: “If there is a chance of systemic Jew hatred being eliminated from our society, it can’t just be Jews who speak out against it.”
Change a couple of the nouns in that sentence and the words could’ve been my student’s.
For many of you, this idea may seem simple and obvious, but it actually runs counter to some of the thinking that has dominated intellectual circles in recent decades. When I was in college, I was trained to be suspicious of the patronizing arrogance behind the impulse to speak on behalf of others. Did people in the late ‘60s really need to wait for Spencer Tracy to tell everyone that Sidney Poitier was “okay” in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Did Mississippi Burning really have to focus on two fictional white heroes in order to depict the injustice of segregation? I was taught to regard such things as ancestors to the current buzz word—“mansplaining.”
But as I watch the events unfold in Ferguson and New York, I’m reminded once again just how many of the intellectual debates framed within the academy are little more than semantic, rhetorical positioning—exercises in who can craft the most pure ideological position. Meanwhile, unarmed people get shot in the street and strangled on the sidewalk.
What’s more, no one is being held accountable because in Ferguson and Staten Island we’ve seen unethical, disingenuous prosecutors acting in bad faith, sabotaging their own grand jury proceedings because they would rather hide behind the anonymous jurors than to admit they don’t want to indict a police officer.
That’s why the basic principle expressed by both Dave Sim and my student really hits home. It’s far better to risk coming across as arrogant and patronizing than to sit by and do nothing. That’s true for issues in the geek community as well. As many of you know, over the past couple of years we’ve finally started to acknowledge the extreme abuse and misogyny found both online and at conventions. When I write something people don’t like, I get called names. When a woman writes something people don’t like, she gets rape threats.
I’ve seen many of my fellow male contributors write pieces that defiantly proclaim that making rape threats is wrong. That used to seem … odd to me—not that I disagreed but that it seemed so obvious as to be almost silly. Surely, I thought, we’re all on the same page here? Surely everyone but the sociopaths already get this? Besides, it would be presumptuous to speak on behalf of the women. Better to offer moral support while they proudly speak up for themselves.
Here again, my university training—well intentioned as it was—really misses the point. While it’s vital to listen to the voices of victims, it’s important to remember that the problems they experience aren’t their problems. The victims didn’t do anything. This is a point Chris Rock recently made in an interview with Frank Rich. As he points out, racism isn’t a black problem; it’s a white problem. And as Judenhass reminds us, anti-Semitism isn’t a Jewish problem; it’s a Gentile problem. And if women are being threatened online or harassed at conventions, it’s not a “woman’s issue.” It’s a problem with men.
After reading all those racist quotes from well-respected people in Judenhass, it’s clear to me that we can never assume that everyone’s on the same page when it comes to basic principles of right and wrong. Judging by recent events, there are plenty of criminal prosecutors, television pundits, and politicians who see nothing wrong with shooting an unarmed teenager a dozen times and leaving his body to rot in the August sun for 4 ½ hours. And there seem to be plenty of prosecutors, television pundits, and politicians who see nothing wrong with illegally choking an unarmed man to death on camera while he desperately gasps, “I can’t breathe!”
There can be no assumption that everyone is on the same page unless we collectively write that page. And writing it takes a lot of voices.
All of our voices.
 Rich, Frank. “In Conversation with Chris Rock.” New York (magazine). Vulture.com. 30 Nov. 2014. Web.