There’s a back story to this post. I was asked to write it yesterday by Seattle’s alternative paper The Stranger. Specifically, they asked for some “historical perspective” to singer Macklemore’s perverse twist on wardrobe malfunction onstage last Friday night, when he decided it’d be cool to perform in what’s sold in variety stores as a “Sheik/Fagin mask,” huge hook nose and all.
When the shit hit the fan, the Seattle-born Macklemore said his get-up was merely a “witch mask” and there was nothing anti-Semitic about it. This morning, Tuesday, he finally issued an apology: “I had no idea,” he said. And later this morning, despite huge numbers of comments on its coverage, The Stranger decided that “this story is over.”
I disagree, so am posting what I wrote right here:
For years I thought of myself as a wandering Jew. I moved not just between cities but between continents — London to Jerusalem to New York to Seattle. It was as though I fit the stereotype of the “rootless cosmopolitan.” Yet while I now seem to have become rooted after all, or at least as rooted as anyone whose houseboat floats on forty feet of water can be, I still can’t help thinking of rootless cosmopolitanism – anti-Semitic code for shiftless, untrustworthy, disloyal Jewishness — as a rather attractive existential state of being. And I still romanticize the idea of the wandering Jew, even though I know it began as an anti-Semitic legend in Christian Rome.
The story goes that a Jewish cobbler wouldn’t allow Christ to rest on his stoop during the trek to Golgotha, for which Christ condemned him to wander the world for eternity, with no rest. The Crusaders brought the legend back to England in the 12th century, where it was embroidered and expanded, and where this particular wandering Jew was born several centuries later. I’d be the only Jew in a Catholic convent school whose nuns referred to me as “the Hebrew girl” — with a certain pause before the word Hebrew, as though to emphasize that they were using a delicate euphemism. At least they refrained from telling me that I’d killed Christ (or given him no rest). Instead, they told me I was going to limbo, which seemed to be a kind of mezzanine between heaven and hell. To their horror, I kind of liked the idea of limbo.
This was only a few years after the end of World War Two. No, I’m not going to bring the six million in here; I have no desire to contribute to the obscenity of invoking their memory in support of current argument. My point is that despite its anti-Nazi stance, England was still deeply anti-Semitic. Which is not surprising given that it was where the “blood libel” first burst into murderous flame.
The blood libel was a medieval urban legend about Jews ritually slaughtering Christian boys and draining their blood to mix into Passover matzos (I kid you not). It spread like wildfire. Thousands of Jews were burned alive and otherwise massacred (and several boys declared saints) until Jews were expelled completely from British shores in 1290, to be allowed back only in 1655. In the light of which, Queen Isabella of Spain’s much better-known expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492, followed by that of all Spain’s Muslims thirty years later, seems pretty par for the course.
The two most infamous Jews in all of literature were created by Englishmen strong and true: Shylock in the 16th century and Fagin in the 19th. Both were portrayed as hunch-backed, lecherous-lipped, greedy-eyed, and of course, flamboyantly hook-nosed (a word that is inherently prejudicial — in Arab countries, it’s known as an eagle’s nose, and has traditionally been considered a sign of nobility). But neither Fagin nor Shylock were new creations. They were personifications of cartoon stereotypes that had become widespread with printing. The Nazi tabloid Der Stürmer didn’t invent the style, but it did help propagate it so widely that it still features on hysterically anti-Semitic websites from the USA to Poland to Yemen. It appeared in Egyptian schoolbooks and newspapers for years. And it turned up with an ironic twist in Denmark in 2006 with the publication of cartoons caricaturing Muhammad and all Muslims as terrorists, all with the “Sheik/Fagin nose” sold so amusingly as a mask at party stores. One Semite apparently looks pretty much like another.
Mild-mannered Seattle might seem a sweet respite from all this. Yet it was in Seattle that I first heard someone say “he Jewed me down” — quite blithely, with no self-consciousness, as though it were perfectly normal. Here that someone tried to make me her token Jew (“Wow, I’ve never had a Jewish friend before,” she said, and she didn’t after either). Here that a former Catholic schoolboy who didn’t realize I was Jewish (“that’s Jewish, you don’t look funny” went the old music-hall joke) assumed that I’d join him in changing the words of the carol “Joy to the world” to “Fuck all the Jews.” Here that I get a finger-pointing “you people” or “you Jews” as I’m held responsible for the actions of an Israeli government I criticize far more bitterly than those to whom the accusatory fingers belong. And it’s here, in the comments on The Stranger’s coverage of the Macklemore affair, that I find all the usual anti-Semitic code words: “touchy,” “thin-skinned,” and that old standby “pushy.”
Seattle is a young city, almost an ahistorical one compared to Jerusalem, and this ahistorical sense has allowed me to find calm writerly perspective on what happened halfway round the world in the Middle East of fifteen hundred, two thousand, even three thousand years ago. I’m immensely grateful for that. But could an absence of historical awareness just be another way of saying innocence? Or should that be ignorance?
When the subject of literary fraud came up in conversation not long ago, for instance, I mentioned the most infamous example of all – “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” And was stunned to realize that nobody had heard of this screed, which first surfaced in Russia in 1903. Purportedly the record of a meeting of leading Jews plotting to take over the world, it’s a classic demonstration of the ornate convolutions performed by the paranoid-conspiratorial mind, and has thus proved remarkably resilient to all evidence that it’s a fiction. Hitler made much use of it, of course, and America’s own tainted automotive titan Henry Ford had half a million copies printed and distributed in the 1920s. You can still find the full text on anti-Semitic websites, while print versions, complete with the usual hook-nosed illustrations, continue to sell steadily in Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
Perhaps Seattle is a bit less innocent after Macklemore’s now infamous twist on the idea of wardrobe malfunction. Or perhaps not. I opt to believe him when he says that he had no idea of the anti-Semitic stereotype, and can understand his initial defensiveness — nobody likes to have their unconscious biases paraded in public. But as he now acknowledges, it’s precisely this no-idea-ness that’s the problem. And that may be true for Seattle as well as for him.
We pride ourselves here on being progressive and tolerant. That’s part of our civic image. But tolerance is an ambiguous ideal. You only need to tolerate what – or whom — you don’t really accept. Stereotypes are inherent in the idea of tolerance, and until we can get beyond them, our proud progressiveness runs the risk of being… well, just another mask.