April 17, 2007

"Tommy Thompson told Jewish activists Monday that making money is 'part of the Jewish tradition."


(Thanks to Eric Muller for pointing this one out to me.)

Well, now, how bad is this one? It's not "nappy-headed hos" bad. It's not "macaca" bad. Of course, there's always the old "it's a compliment" excuse (which Don Imus could have used too). Thompson tries it, and earns the predictable mockery.

Eugene Volokh is likely to have the right take on this, I decide before reading what he has to say:
Actually, while earning money in the private sector is part of the tradition of most religions and ethnicities that have survived and thrived, valuing the earning of money in the private sector is, to my knowledge, more an aspect of "Jewish tradition" than of at least some other traditions.

Judaism, for instance, lacks the sense that poverty is virtuous, long ostensibly (and sometimes actually) present in Christianity. Jewish culture has also historically lacked the condemnation of mere commerce -- as opposed to military success, political power, or land ownership -- as dirty and grubby, perhaps partly because Jews were so often excluded from the military, politics, and land ownership....

Recent Jewish culture has included some other ideological forces that have devalued commercial success, chiefly Socialism, even non-Socialist social-welfarism, and, in some measure, the exaltation of intellectual pursuits over commercial ones. Today in America, it may actually be that Protestants on average endorse commerce as a worthy way of life more than Jews do....

So it's hard to see Thompson's comments as reflective either of actual anti-Semitism -- which is especially unlikely given that he was wooing a Jewish group -- or of the unreflective acceptance of pejorative or inaccurate anti-Semitic stereotypes. Thompson could have spoken more artfully....
Hmmm.... He's running for President. Isn't the ability to speak artfully part of the job description? (And I'm not saying you can't get the job without. Clearly you can.)


Beyond a Reasonable Doubt said...

It was anti-semitic. I have to respecfully disagree with Professor Volkh. Judaism may not have a sense that poverty is virtuous, etc., but Thompson wasn't looking at the religious histories or texts of Judaism or Christianity. He was going back to the old cannard that Jews are money-makers, usually off the backs of non-Jews. It's the shylock scenario, the basis for pogroms and hatred of Jews throughout history. He may have meant it as a compliment, but it was no more acceptable than saying that all African-Americans are good at basketball and dancing.

What makes this any better than nappy-headed ho, Professor Althouse? One was a racial slur, sure, but Imus wasn't really speaking substantively about the team. He didn't know them; never met them. Thompson's remarks, though, were substantive. He believes that Jews have some sort of inherit money-grubbing/money-making traits. He seems to have meant it in a complimentary manner, but this stereotype of Jews has, for thousands of years, been used as an excuse to shove Jews in the liminal state, as a shadowy, evil cabal that makes money off of non-Jews and turns children into matzah.

ShadowFox said...

Ann, take a look at the comments on Volokh's thread. Basically, every commentor disagrees with him.

Consider just this simple issue--would someone like Thompson have done the historical analysis that Volokh presents? At best, it is doubtful. It's not the kind of thing people do unless they happened to get a theology or history of religions degree. And even then, they are not likely to make an idiotic statement like that.

This is irrespective of Volokh's analysis being correct (which it is not).

Thompson is not an anti-Semite in the over sense--he does not go out there and bash Jews like Pat Buchanan (although, even Buchanan has learned to tone down). But the comment itself is anti-Semitic. It is a part of anti-Semitic culture.

This is the kind of perception you learn in a family setting or in school and stays with you all your life. There is a fine line here. Some people are aware that their background makes them susceptible to bigoted expressions and take extra care to avoid them. Others are simply unaware that what they've learned as "common knowledge" is just prejudice in disguise.

Clearly, Thompson is no Macaca Allen--Allen is a self-hating Jewish fascist, who hid his ethnic identity to cater to the VA white supremacists.

Thompson's comment, however, is worse than Biden's faux pas earlier. In fact, the closest to Thompson's remarks comes the comment from Jimmy The Greek Snyder who used to be the odds maker on CBS sports. Here's the comment:
"The black is the better athlete. And he practices to be the better athlete, and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes way back to the slave period. The slave owner would breed this big black with this big black woman so he could have a big black kid. That's where it all started."

Unlike Thompspon, Snyder issued an unequivocal apology, although it was obvious that his comments were also meant as "compliment". The problem is that Thompson does not understand that he's being offensive--his apology only makes matters worse. He's done!

Revenant said...

Well, now, how bad is this one? It's not "nappy-headed hos" bad. It's not "macaca" bad.

Thompson's remark is more along the lines of saying "Asians are good at math" or "black men have big dicks" -- ignorant and racist (ethnicist?), but not necessarily intended as an insult.

I think Eugene Volokh might be generalizing from his own experience -- his family was obviously *very* success-oriented (he went to college at 15, if I recall correctly).

The partisan moderate said...

I think people are way too sensitive. Yes, Tommy Thompson should have been more artful in his remarks but he is not Don Imus. I am Jewish and I don't find it offensive. It is a positive and not a negative stereotype. He did not imply or state that Jews were in anyway "money-grubbing". It is a fact and one even some of my politically correct liberal friends mention that disproportionately Jewish people have been financially successful.

Many of the top lawyers, investors, and doctors in this country are Jewish. I realize given the history of anti-semitism in the world and the resentment this is caused, why a heightened level of sensitivity is required but to compare Thompson in anyway to Imus is absurd.

Thompson should be more careful in the future and may want to clarify his remarks but an apology is not necessary. I hate to think that you cannot say anything positive about an ethnicity without people taking offense.

johnstodder said...

I'm not Jewish, but my sense is that these somewhat benign or positive stereotypes about Jews, Asians or blacks amuse or even flatter about 80 percent of the affected ethnic group, and offend 20 percent.

Where I live, a lot of Asians go to my son's high school, and guess what? They bring up the grade curve quite a bit! The non-Asian kids joke with the Asians about it. Most of the time, the Asian kids laugh out of self-recognition.

Except for the ones who don't, who get really pissed.

That's why Thompson's comment was so stupid. If you want to be president, you have to be president of all the people, not just the 80 percent who don't mind if you joke about their culture. Thompson's approach would work fine if he wants to take Don Rickles' place in Las Vegas, but not for this.

peter hoh said...

He should just accept that he doesn't have a chance. This gaffe just seals it.

Eli Blake said...

The irony here is might actually be good news for Thompson, because he is so low in the polls that any exposure he gets is good for him. He's so low that even if it only got him the vote of bigots, that might be enough for him to rise in the polls. And that is a sad epilogue:

Tommy Thompson would have been a very strong candidate for President during the 1990's (certainly he'd have done much better than Bob Dole in 1996, in particular). Even in 2000, he'd have made a good alternative to George Bush for people who were concerned (even then) about Bush's perceived rigidity and hard-core conservatism (in fact it was a somewhat erratic John McCain who received the benefit of the support of the same base who would have rather supported a more consistent Tommy Thompson).

Had Thompson 'pulled the trigger' and jumped in, in either 1996 or 2000 he might well have won the GOP nomination and the Presidency.

But now he is like Mario Cuomo used to be (when Pataki mercifully put him out of his misery in 1994): a candidate who never could decide that the time was right, until the time was no longer right. Thompson had his moment, but he waited about a decade too late to seize it and now all he can grasp is thin air.

Sooner or later (likely sooner) he will fold up his tent and disappear into the 'once ran for President' retirement farm with the Carol Mosely Brauns and the Phil Cranes, and this year's Tom Vilsack. And I'll be honest here, speaking as a liberal and a student of politics: Tommy Thompson is a decent guy and he deserves a better end to his public service career.

ShadowFox said...

Partisan Moderate: saying that many Jews in the US are doctors and lawyers may be somewhat of a cultural stereotype, but it's not offensive. But when a neo-Nazi goes to court and asks for a "Jew lawyer" because this "Jew lawyer" would get him off, it is offensive. Talking about "Jewish bankers" may well be offensive under any circumstances.

You simply cannot separate allegedly positive stereotype of Jewish "cultural tradition" of "making money" from the Buchananite "banking elite". And that goes directly back to the Protocols.

I can understand what Thompson was trying to say and he simply should have skipped the subject. Let's remember where Allen got his racist attitudes--from his father's family. Although I don't believe that Thompson is anti-Semitic, his family probably was. So he grew up believing such general statements. Over time, he ascribed a positive connotation to them.

But whatever his motive, why does every presidential candidate try to be a comedian? What, they want to look less wooden than Al Gore? Al Gore is not running! Politicians should not try out their ethnic jokes in public (George Bush should not try out any jokes in public, but that's another matter). It's an invitation to disaster.

File Thompson next to Biden. Eli Blake is exactly right about both of them.

If you want a better perspective on Asian-American attitude toward "positive" stereotypes, I suggest Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.