February 16, 2022

Humpty Dumpty Derangement Syndrome

The John Tenniel Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass

On January 31, as practically everyone who scans headlines will recall, Whoopi Goldberg, the actor, comedian, and conversationalist, waded into a racial identity tsunami. The tsunami won, though unlike many casualties of such encounters, she suffered only a drenching, from which she has now dried out.

Goldberg, who co-hosts the ABC talk show “The View,” wandered into a brief discussion about the Holocaust, not a subject amenable to light or casual views. The conversation began (you can watch it for yourself here) with a brief report on the current wave of book banning by school districts around the country. She noted that a Tennessee opponent of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992) objected to being made to feel uncomfortable by its occasional portrayal of nudity and “bad” language.

As she reported this tidbit, Goldberg looked incredulous, reminding viewers what the Holocaust was, “the killing of six million people.” Joy Behar, one of her colleagues around the table, chimed in that such an objection was a “kind of canard” to throw people off from admitting that this was a book that “makes white people look bad.” The quick-witted Goldberg responded with an incautious but probably irresistible throwaway line (to Behar’s badly stated thesis), “Well, this is white people doing it to white people; so y’all go fight amongst yourselves.” As the conversation continued, Goldberg denied that the Holocaust was about race. It was, rather, “about man’s inhumanity to man.” Encountering mild pushback, she said it wasn’t about race because it “was about two white groups of people.” Talking about race, she continued, is to send us down a “blind alley. Let’s talk about it for what it is. It’s how people treat each other.”

It didn’t take long for the pushback to reach the studio. Some hours later Goldberg released an apology on Twitter saying that she should have said the Holocaust was about race as much as it was about man’s inhumanity to man, quoting from an early tweet from the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt that the Nazis regarded the Jews as an “inferior race.” Said Goldberg forthrightly: “I stand corrected.”

Later that same evening she appeared with Stephen Colbert on the “The Late Show.” She apologized again, but not without stepping further into it, opining that “the Nazis were white people, and most of the people they were attacking were white people.” But while she thinks of race in terms of skin color, she said, not everyone does. “I get it. Folks are angry. I accept that, and I did it to myself.” She apologized the next morning at the start of “The View,” plainly acknowledging that “it is indeed about race because Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race.”

That night, despite the obviously sincere apologies, ABC News suspended her for two weeks because of her “wrong and hurtful comments.” She was asked to “take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments.” (She returned to the show on Valentine’s Day.)

That Goldberg did not mean to suggest the Holocaust was just a scaled up tussle between a couple of bad boys in the schoolyard is clear from her incredulity the first morning on “The View” that someone would ignore the horror of the Holocaust and instead condemn a little nudity and a few “bad” words in a wrenching graphic novel about genocide. Her contrition, I’m convinced, was genuine.

Nevertheless, the whites vs. whites remark trivialized history and, if I’m permitted, whitewashes the enormity of the evil. Jews are not merely another white group (like this gang of rivals or the other football team) but perhaps the longest continuing persecuted people on the planet, one nearly undone in our own times by a genocide of the greatest magnitude in history. The very word “genocide” was coined to name its malevolence. It wasn’t your great-grandmother’s Hatfields and McCoys or even your medieval auto-da-fe.

But this isn’t the place to explore the taxonomy and measurements of political, religiously inspired, or even racial mass murders. In addition to Jews, Nazi apparatchiks undertook genocide of the Roma on racial grounds and used the Holocaust killing machines to slaughter hundreds of thousands if not millions of others (the number is controverted), including ethnic, national, and religious groups, homosexuals, disabled people, and others. The Nazis offered varied political, ideological, and even biological excuses for killing the groups they did, but the decision to exterminate Jews can be understood only as springing from a virulent racism that required assigning all humans to racial categories. Jews weren’t persecuted and killed because they were a dissident white group.

Nazi beliefs were nonsense on many grounds, but even to state them gives credence to an absurdity, for the terms used never fit the facts. As Yair Rosenberg wrote in a newsletter reprinted in The Atlantic, “Jewish identity doesn’t conform to Western categories, despite centuries of attempts by society to shoehorn it in. This makes sense, because Judaism predates Western categories.” He notes that Jewishness is not exclusively about religion (the Nazis did not care whether one born Jewish was a non-observant atheist), not about race in Goldberg’s sense (since practicing Jews have different skin colors and, indeed, anyone may convert to Judaism), not strictly about culture (because there are religious components to the identity). Nor does it comprise a single ethnicity: Jews lived for centuries in disparate regions and states around the world. Many Jews saw and continue to see themselves not as members of a displaced tribe but as citizens of their host nation, as indeed, quite strikingly, so many German Jews did before Hitler.

But to the Nazis, Jews were a race, one at the bottom of a hierarchy of racial identity. Central to the Nazi mythos was the claim to racial supremacy. Standing atop the hierarchy, Germans were “Aryans,” the “master race,” and entitled to dominate everyone else, no matter how white. Jews were an “inferior race” or, indeed, “subhuman.” That race is at the core is widely understood and recorded in the popular culture. For example, in Stephanie S. Tolan’s Surviving the Applewhites, a best-selling young-adult comedic sendup of how a troubled teenager turned his life around by being sent to live with a madcap family, one of the characters, in a story having nothing to do with the Holocaust, straightforwardly remarks that it is “one of the most terrible examples of racial hatred in modern times” (Harper, revised edition, 2012, p. 116).

In support of their insanity, the Nazis borrowed much from crackpot American eugenics theories, which did not limit the concept of race, at least in common parlance, to skin color. Even if various nationalities (Italians, Irish, Cubans, and many others) were, legally speaking, always considered white, from the late nineteenth century until well into the twentieth, they were casually but widely regarded as racially distinct. That’s the advantage of bogus science and unexamined prejudices. I offer one more homespun example, Vladmir Nabokov’s Lolita, published in 1955. On page one, the narrator describes his father as “a gentle, easy-going person, a salad of racial genes: a Swiss citizen, of mixed French and Austrian descent, with a dash of Danube in his veins.”

So it is telling, especially from a woman, born Caryn Johnson, who took “Goldberg” as part of her name and who has long proclaimed her Jewishness, that the entire fracas over a few seconds of repartee turned on what, speaking charitably, could be called a misconception about the meaning of race and racism. But a misconception shared no doubt by millions. This is the crux of the problem. “Race,” “racism,” and many other descriptive terms about a wide class of phenomena (in particular, concepts like “harm,” “privilege,” and “discrimination”) have been undergoing a profound transformation over several decades, and their altered meaning compounded Goldberg’s ignorance of Nazi history into the object lesson the episode has become.

I like to think of this largely unrecognized phenomenon as the Humpty Dumpty Derangement Syndrome. HDDS allows us to talk right by each other without understanding we are having different conversations. I take the name, of course, from Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

HDDS works on many levels. As Humpty Dumpty asserted it, writers have carte blanche to use words however they wish, with no corresponding obligation to make clear what they are saying, the reader be damned. Humpty seemed to disdain the confusion that his approach engenders. Writers (and speakers) rarely pause to consider their cultural assumptions, since no matter how benevolent the person may be, the concepts embodied by their words usually lie hidden (perhaps especially) from those most at home in the presuppositions of the age. I once had a heated and protracted conversation with a colleague over whether a committee on which we both sat had reached consensus on a particular issue; it turned out that he, the lone holdout, used the term to mean “unanimity” and I took it to mean “almost all of us.” (Amusingly, I think, the dictionaries themselves come to no consensus on which definition of “consensus” is “correct.”) Just so, over the past several decades, many particularly freighted words bearing on concepts that cause offense have taken on new meanings, with nary a gloss nor guide. The result is a hodgepodge: the national discourse is riddled with semantic fault lines that few ever stoop to examine or track. I won’t explore the philology here, mainly because you don’t have the time to read, and I don’t have the time to research, what I’d say. So I must content myself with a single, startling example.

In the immediate aftermath of Goldberg’s comments on racism, a tweet appeared with a snapshot of the ADL’s definition of racism (you can see that statement here):

Racism: The marginalization and/or oppression of people of color based on a socially constructed racial hierarchy that privileges white people.”

Goldberg presumably never read this definition, but if she had had it at hand while being flayed for her jaunty turn of phrase, she might with justice have flung it back at her critics, most particularly Jonathan Greenblatt. This ADL definition says what she said, and from one of the premier Jewish groups dedicated to monitoring and confronting racial hatred of all kinds.

But you won’t find that definition now on ADL’s website. Apparently it had been posted for several years, but within one or two days it was replaced by a very different statement:

Racism (interim definition): Racism occurs when individuals or institutions show more favorable evaluation or treatment of an individual or group based on race or ethnicity.

Immediately following this terse redefinition, ADL offers more, from the very same Jonathan Greenblatt who had taken Goldberg to task just days before, though, oddly, his explanation lies behind a paywall on a non-ADL site. “We try to adapt to the times,” he said, “but we certainly don’t always get it right” :

As a case study, take ADL’s definition of racism. A few years ago, ADL updated our definition to reflect that racism in the United States manifests in broader and systemic ways and to explicitly acknowledge the targeting of people of color—among many others—by the white supremacist extremism we have tracked for decades. While this is true, this new frame narrowed the meaning in other ways. And, by being so narrow, the resulting definition was incomplete, rendering it ineffective and therefore unacceptable. It’s true, it’s just not the whole truth. It alienated many people who did not see their own experience encompassed in this definition, including many in the Jewish community.

In all honesty, as I re-read it this past week, it struck me that it didn’t even speak to my own family’s experience with the racism they experienced as Jews from the Middle East.

Greenblatt might have added that the replacement definition (properly labeled “interim,” I assume) is not very helpful, since it avoids grappling with what was wrong with the previous definition’s white vs. black rhetoric. To say that racism “occurs” when unfavorable treatment is based on “race” says nothing, or else what was the Goldberg contretemps all about? In an age that now accepts as gospel that race is a “social construct,” whose construct and of what remain the crucial questions. It’s been two weeks and the ADL, which has been thinking on these matters for decades, apparently hasn’t found anything meaningful to say. Their folks are the experts. If they can’t define it, why yell at Whoopi?

In short, core words, essential to the discussion of the most pressing political, social, and cultural issues, rest on flimsy, shaky, perhaps even non-existent foundations. Ignoring this fragility of meaning puts us to a great deal of inconvenience, unnecessary heat, emotional overkill, bungled analysis, and, much worse, often, bloodshed. I hope to explore this problem much more intensively in the months to come.