Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the thirst that is the drink.
Last week I talked about the artifacts by which we remember both the Shoah and the Captivity of black people in the west. This week I'm going to talk about their comparative aesthetics. The Shoah is mainly urban, industrial, scientific, Norse, Protestant, art deco, sado-masochistic/black leather, red, black and white. The slavery chapter of the Captivity is mainly represented in earth-tones, with hints of blue, and the dripping green of kudzu, rural, agrarian, folk, Southern Baptist, sun- dappled, outsider and itinerant artsy, colonial, linen, and bondage sadist.
The biblical character Moses figures in the liberation theology of both, though ironically more so in the Captivity than in the Shoah. The Shoah's iconography of liberation tends more toward the Maccabean than the Mosaic. Although there are both armies and solitary figures of liberation associated with both mass atrocities, in the Shoah the main figures of resistance, the partisans and the Allies, are armies, akin to the Maccabees if anything biblical, and the downfall of the bureaucratic/industrial enemy is a military one; while Harriet Tubman, guiding her people to freedom through the Underground Railroad as the Moses figure of the Captivity, looms large; liberation depends on the courage and perseverance of individual heroes in the face of interpersonal if pandemic human hatred, hatred that was enacted anew every time an individual crime against dark-skinned humans was committed.
While the portrait of Nazism is painted against a background of policies and laws under which a dormant, innate anti-Semitism was enabled to emerge, giving a great multitude of Europeans permission to commit the crimes they'd always wanted to commit, the institution of slavery was considered the economic end, the means to which was the manipulation of hatred that turned people against their better natures, although this diagram of hatred has since transformed to one more closely resembling the Nazi license model as the Captivity has moved from its slavery phase into its Black Codes, Jim Crow and current carceral/more obviously genocidal phases. Does society make us racists? Or does it merely allow us to act out our inborn hatred of the Other? The answer isn't limited to those choices, especially now that we no longer diagram human nature as reducible to a solid or binary thing but as a spectrum, and a fluid one at that.
Considering the question of why the Shoah has so much cachet and attractiveness in the media imagination versus the Captivity, you could point to the urban and industrial setting of the main chapters of the atrocity against the Jews, the relatively brief and discrete amount of time the Shoah is popularly considered to have begun and ended, the whiteness of the victims, and the fashionableness of the perpetrators.
The SS were stylish in an art-deco fashion. The art deco eagles and lightning bolts and skulls gave their entire project the air of putting a modern spin on an age-old psychopathy. Nazism seems a perversion of style, a perversion of art, of industry, medicine, science, and government. Perversion is hot.
Slavers, on the other hand, had abominable style. Colonel Sanders is not a trend- setter. His outfit was not designed by intellectuals with an eye toward cool and sleek. And the hick or hillbilly style of the overseer and the sweaty, night-raping master is hardly the stuff of sex clubs, the dominatrix, or anti-authoritarian bikers or Finnish homoerotic illustration – it has not transferred to TV and movie coolness, sexiness, and leisure pleasures, however perverse. The most fashionable things to come out of slavery are Frederick Douglass's look and the Henleys worn by runaway male slaves in the TV show "Underground." The entire wardrobe design for "Underground" was excellent, but especially those Henleys, and it's a shame the show ran for only two seasons, as it might have infused slavery with a little more style.
Another missed opportunity was the ill-fated but brilliantly, and perversely, titled "Birth of a Nation" of 2016, which was buried by the tone-deaf response of director Nate Parker to accusations of rape. That the rape itself was the true tragedy would go without saying, but one has to say it, because it's gone without saying for so long no one even misses its mention anymore. In discussions of entertainment and the aesthetic questions of persecution, actual crimes are often concealed and lost in the folds and textures of the spectacle.
This is not to say that fetishizing the beautiful bodies of black men and women hasn't been inherent in the Captivity, from the actual advertisement, appraisal and sale of those bodies in historical reality to their titillating appearances in schlocky exploitation movies. And, although there is a thread of discourse that attaches the most dehumanizing racism to white objectification of black bodies, the overall aesthetic appreciation of those bodies as athletes, dancers, models, and simply examples of human beauty, is viewed today as virtuous, as black voices have become and continue to be more integrated into the mainstream of critical discussion and the popular arts. This is opposed to the popular view that the sexualizing of Nazi imagery and derivative bondage fashion is a perverse, impure indulgence, and of course there is nothing beautiful about the victims of Nazism, Spielberg's male-gaze- heavy pornographic disrobing of Jewish women in the Auschwitz shower scene in "Schindler's List" notwithstanding. The Nazi attracted to the genetically filthy Jewish woman can hardly survive in our culture, although it does have an analogue in Jungle Fever, and other fevers, the racist attraction of white men and women to the "exotic" and "savage."
The singular fact is, the Captivity narrative says that black people are proud of who they are, are strong and beautiful, which pride and beauty fed the hatred of the inferior white oppressor, who envied black excellence, fetishized it, longed to dominate it, either own it or destroy it. Black people are the heroes of their oppression narrative, too strong and beautiful to be allowed freedom by the white world. No wonder black nerds love "The Incredibles."
Jews actually fear this type of narrative spin, as much as they also desire to add it to the Shoah story. The idea that Jews had greatness and therefore Hitler found it necessary to crush it borders on blaming the victim, or worse yet, playing into the age-old and still-current trope that Jews are sinister geniuses who have actually always engineered all the misery the goyim experience, and, well, maybe they should be exterminated. Maybe they even brought it on themselves purposely to cash in on victimhood!
The poetics of black strength, beauty, talent, and genius in the face of oppression may be what holds the Captivity story, as a story, back in comparison to the Shoah. The Shoah is about victims surviving, by chance, not merit, the industrial, stylish, sexually psychotic machine of extermination and genetic purification. The Captivity is the story of brilliant beautiful people achieving psychological and physical liberation through their power and will, and only partly by chance, if at all.
What makes this a weakness is not merely the way it's perceived by the racist story- consuming public, or the continued albeit dwindling dominance of the entertainment industry by Jews, though we cannot by any means discount these forces. It's also our current preference for stories that reflect the futility of fighting against fate and God and a heartless, unfair world. Stories of coming to terms with futility are very fashionable. They're considered a challenge to dogmatic religion, to the doctrine of temporal retribution, to social Darwinism, and therefore more mature than stories of triumph. Listen to Terry Gross's recent discussion on Fresh Air of Paul Schrader's new movie, with the now old and venerable Schrader and the appropriately aged Ethan Hawke.
Ironically, with everything else going against it, the story of Captivity suffers from the shallowest of narrative concerns: happy endings are for babies. But since the Captivity still continues, its captives have little choice but to confront it with hope. How else are black people to survive their ongoing persecution if they don't see themselves as heroes in the story? It's all very well for Jews to sing of their age-old victimization and being surrounded by enemies when they can always point to Freud, Einstein, and any number of celebrated intellectuals, the invention of Hollywood, making the desert bloom in an entire colonial nation they founded as recently as 70 years ago. If black people were to peddle that same notion today, while nations on their original home continent still suffer the repercussions of colonialism, and manipulations of post-colonialism, would be to tempt defeat, just as they're on the cusp of either gaining ground or losing it, a balance that we might wonder if the dominant economic powers would like to preserve.
The Shoah gains in comparison by having the clear defeat of its villain so many years in the past. With that under their belt, Jews can wallow in ambiguity and self-pity all they want. They know they've outlasted the biggest threat they'll ever face, despite their constant worry that it can happen anywhere. Yes, it can, but it's unlikely to happen to the Jews, or only to the Jews, or at least that's the popular understanding, these former victims of the world's greatest evil who now seem to have so much going for them.
Black oppression is global, institutional and ongoing, and in a very real sense it's especially harsh in the USA. Jewish oppression is regional, sporadic, and globally disorganized, more an acute mental and social infection than an entire economic system. Those differences feed different appetites in the dominant culture. Jewish oppression is perverted, stylish, powered by scientific and industrial tools and intellectual structures. Black oppression centers around misdirected virility, passion, jealous desire, powered by whips, sails, paddle wheels, quaint colonialism and plows. Jewish oppression is existentially ambiguous, which is narratively fashionable. Black oppression is heroic, which is considered not complex enough to be fashionable, especially as humanity faces extinction due to its own ingenuity. Even superhero movies were trying to downplay or complicate heroism for a while. Strangely, we're attracted to stories in which we're bound to lose, just when we need the opposite.
These aesthetic aspects are all insidiously backed up by racist and anti-Semitic tropes, some buried deep in the cultural collective dream and some more obvious but ignored or twisted or turned into memes or running gags on sketch comedy shows. But they're shallow concerns. Whose victimization is more sexy or sacred is a shallow question, but it does hint at persistent problems of privilege. The Jews have had a 3000 year head start, and although the Captivity began long before the Shoah, the Jews, partly due to whiteness, established an advantage in the business of imagery in the West that keeps them ahead of competing narratives of oppression. But the challenge represented by the oppression of black people is coming into a renaissance, black creators are establishing themselves more visibly and with more artistic freedom to play with genres, metaphors, and satire, as the Civil Rights movement and white resistance to it are struggling through their most recent iteration. If nothing else, there's going to be more great art. If anything, the Jewish cultural contribution is languishing, a ghost of its former post-war dominance. Tony Kushner is more a playwright than a Jewish playwright or even a gay playwright, While Donald Glover is a multifaceted black genius. The marvelous brilliance of James Baldwin is being revisited. Meanwhile, Phillip Roth is dead.
In part three, next week, we'll look at the re-emergence and future of anti-Jewish and anti-black movements: the nationalists and white supremacists, and how enemies of fascism might cut them down at the root.
This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!