There are few unpleasant phenomena that have not been blamed upon the Jews. Marxism. Nazism. The financial crisis. Even Twin Peaks series 2, I’d guess, has been attributed to sinister semitic influences.
Oliver Kamm has discussed the relationship between anti-semitism and “conspiracy theories” in the Jewish Chronicle. He is willing to admit that conspiracies do happen but makes a hash of distinguishing legitimate analyses of such events from the paranoid hokum he decries. A “conspiracy theory”, he says, “explains history with reference to an overarching plot by powerful interests, and disposes of every piece of countervailing data”.
This seems incoherent. There is Popper’s “conspiracy theory of society”, which I would define as an outlook rather than an idea: one that assumes that global change must be the product of volition and excludes factors like coincidence, error and inevitability. Then there are theorists who ignore contradictory data or see it as further proof of the vastness of the plot they fear but they do not represent a form of theory so much of theorising. I am unconvinced that there is a clear distinction between good and bad theories except in as much as they accord with the discernable facts to varying degrees.
Kamm insists that “conspiracy theories” are “inherently, and not merely incidentally, a threat to the Jews”. Even “ostensibly apolitical…theories”, he claims, “draw from the wellspring of anti-semitism”. Like the gatekeeper of mainstream discourse he styles himself as, Kamm sets out to prove this with reference to the Oxfordian theory of Shakespearean authorship. Its originator, he says, “decried democracy”. What does this have to do with anti-semitism? Nothing. Kamm proceeds to tell us that its “most prominent recent advocate, Joseph Sobran, was a notorious antisemite”. It is an annoying feature of our age that a diagnosis of bigotry is enough for it to be assumed that entire body of one’s opinions is rotten. I think would be hard to argue that Sobran was anything but indisposed to the Jewish people but he was much else besides and there is no reason to presume that this opinion influenced his views on Shakespeare. I will also note that a great populariser of this theory was Sigmund Freud, and that Oxfordians include Lynne Kositsky.
The piece ends with a swipe at the “fantastical world of the 9/11 conspiracy theorists”, for whom “it is again the Jews who are behind momentous world events”. It is unfair to imply that 9/11 theorists are, in the main, anti-semitic and ludicrous to propose that they are homogenous. I rarely encounter people who are more liable to disagree.
This piece on anti-semitism and conspiracy theories did not – as you may have gathered – meet with my approval but it is a subject worth discussing. Once heterodox ideas are proposed Jew-haters are likely to come to it like wasps swarming about ginger beer. Their hope, I guess, is that they will be able to hitch a ride into mainstream discourse. One should be careful to avoid examples of sloppy thinking that will give them an opening.
The Jews are the only people whose very existence is the subject of conspiracy theories. That they are so few in number yet so high in prominence is held to be explicable only by the idea that they have been engaged in some kind of malignant plot. For such a conspiracy to succeed, of course, they would have to be very smart and very industrious. A more parsimonious explanation, then, is simply that they are liable to be smart and industrious. Kamm hints towards a fair point with the term “overarching”. One must be especially cautious about theories that allege that plots exist of such vastness that they stretch back over hundreds of years. It is hard to trace ideas and organisations back over such periods of time and in their efforts to locate possible culprits theorists risk alighting instead upon a people.
One should admit to the fact that Jewish people have been far likelier to succeed within societies than others. There are fewer Jews than Guatemalans in the world yet people of semitic lineages are spread throughout our politics and culture. The irony is that in their screeds against Jewish influence bigots often understate the extent to which Jewish people have been prominent. They draw attention to their numerousness in one area of society that they perceive as being malignant while ignoring the profusion of them in areas that stand in opposition to the first. A while ago a left-wing blogger was collecting the statements of American writers who had apologised for torture. A commenter observed that several of them were Jewish and sneered, “Pattern?” The obvious response is that if you listed prominent opponents of torture it would include Noam Chomsky, Amy Goodman, Howard Zinn and Seymour Hersh. Pattern? Other bigots, naturally, would survey this list and claim that Jews have organised a conspiracy of leftism, regardless of the fact that the dissident right is built upon the works of people like Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard and Paul Gottfried.
It is worth observing that people have denounced commentators as anti-semites when they criticise organisations and ideological groupings in which Jews have been prominent. Matt Taibbi, for example, was smeared for attacking Goldman Sachs while critics of neoconservatism are often dismissed as bigots. This essentially holds the critics responsible for Jewish success. I don’t know. I mean, there you are, trying to stop people from reducing movements and events to Jewish phenomena and supposed opponents of anti-semitism come along and reduce them to Jewish phenomena. Nice work, guys.
In an age where aspirations concern equality and individualism people can be averse to discussing ethnic cultures. Bigots often sneak into these neglected fields of debate and reshape diagnoses cultural trends into betrayals conspiracies. Last week, for tedious reasons, I was directed towards a rant on the website of tireless neo-Nazi David Duke that references an essay by Nathan Abrams on the role of Jews in pornography. Abrams offers a thoughtful and interesting take on the influence of different trends within Jewish secularism on the industry. Duke takes this and rants about the sinister machinations “Zionists” and the “Ziomedia”. Never mind that this ignores the other influences, such as of the French – who pioneered erotic filmmaking – the Italians – Gerard Damiano made Deep Throat and the Mafia popularised – and pure-bred Americans from Hugh Hefner to Larry Flynt. Never mind that Abrams was discussing small subsets of Jews and not the people as a whole. There are differences between culture and conspiracy, important for epistemic and empathic reasons. The former is the burden of history that people have little choice but to manifest. The latter represents a decision to burden others.
Conspiracy theorising can descend into a bog of bigotry but there is nothing inevitable about it. It was, after all, Ellsberg who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Hersh who exposed My Lai, Bernstein who revealed Watergate and Dreyfuss who fell victim to some of the most notorious state machinations in history. What is required is dispassionate rigour; something that will be hard to maintain if people fear the imposing threat of persecution.