The Political Chill of Snow
Anti-Semitism, Populism, and the Present
In New Hampshire — where I live — decisions to cancel classes are based more on what time the snow stops falling rather than how much snow is expected to fall. If it stops early enough the night before, school will be open the next day, whether the snow gauge reads two inches or twelve.
Of course, most states and cities further south plan their budgets around the likelihood of snow not falling, or rather around the likelihood that when it falls, the storm will be a dumping that presents such an obvious travel hazard that most people will be patient as the few snow plows in the area diligently but slowly clear the stuff away. But this does mean that even a dusting can rattle inhabitants: what to Granite Staters would seem not even shovel-worthy might induce a light panic in, say, St. Louis or Nashville.
Or Washington, D.C., where a member of the District’s Council responded to some snow flurries by posting a Facebook video that has caused a very different kind of storm. In the video the Council member, Trayon White, Sr., said:
“Man, it just started snowing out of nowhere this morning, man. Y’all better pay attention to this climate control, man, this climate manipulation… And D.C. keep talking about, ‘We a resilient city.’ And that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”
The Council member later claimed — credibly, in my opinion — that he did not realize that his comment was anti-Semitic: apparently he did not know that the Rothschilds were Jewish. And given the bizarre and even rather antique nature of the slur (the Rothschilds? Was George Soros busy?), this might have remained a local story. But because White is African-American, it also fed into a recent controversy involving a prominent Black activist, Tamika Mallory, who was called out for her attendance at a speech by Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan has a long history of making anti-Semitic (as well as homophobic) remarks, and he made some more at the speech Mallory was attending. Challenged to distance herself from Farrakhan and from his anti-Semitism, Mallory instead responded rather belligerently, tweeting at one point, “If your leader does not have the same enemies as Jesus, they may not be THE leader! Study the Bible and u will find the similarities. Ostracizing, ridicule and rejection is a painful part of the process…but faith is the substance of things!” This in itself was heard by a number of Jews as an anti-Semitic dogwhistle, as there is a long tradition within Christianity of construing the Jews as Christ-killers.
For many Jews, it is impossible to emotionally disconnect these events from the rising tide of violence and violent rhetoric against Jews and against Jewish buildings (synagogues and memorials) the world over. Viktor Orban, the Hungarian strongman, recently revived the old “rootless cosmopolitan” canard in a speech: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”
Both Mallory and White vehemently disclaimed that their remarks knowingly traded in anti-Semitism. However, at least for Mallory, a number of critics have brushed off that excuse: “how can anyone be so ignorant?” is the implication.
But ignorance may be at the heart of the matter, as it runs the other direction as well — most Jewish-Americans are unfamiliar both with the place of the Nation of Islam within many Black communities and with some of the tropes of Black liberation theology that I think I hear in a comment like Mallory’s about the enemies of Jesus. Ignorance of Black culture, at any rate, is the argument put forward in two excellent pieces about Mallory: one appearing on The Root and another, by Adam Serwer, in The Atlantic. While not defending Mallory’s decision to stop short of denouncing Farrakhan, both pieces try to explain why doing so would be very difficult — strategically and emotionally — for someone in Mallory’s position and given Mallory’s life history.
The problem of ignorance and anti-Semitism has a longer history in U.S. politics. Specifically, the question of whether certain traditionally anti-Semitic tropes were used deliberately or innocently was at the crux of a famous historiographical debate in the 1960s about the Populist movement. Were the Populists’ attacks on greedy bankers — some of which used terms like Shylock or invoked the Rothschilds — meant to focus anger and hatred on the Jews, or was the association so sublimated that the Populists didn’t even realize they were blowing a dogwhistle?
The historian at the center of this argument was Norman Pollack, who openly challenged senior historians like Richard Hofstadter and Oscar Handlin to provide better evidence for the alleged anti-Semitism of the Populists than they had shown when first making their accusations. Although the back-and-forth over the possible anti-Semitism of the Populists and the Free Silverites continued for some time, Pollack established the main line of his argument in his first attack on Hofstadter, in 1960’s “Hofstadter on Populism: A Critique of ‘The Age of Reform’” (Journal of Southern History 26.4). Mincing no words, Pollack stated that “The weakness of Hofstadter’s case becomes painfully obvious when it is noted that he relies on very few items, some misinterpreted, and on an extremely weak master’s thesis.”
Pollack examined one of those items in some detail: a speech by William Jennings Bryan before an audience of “Hebrew Democrats” from Chicago. Hofstadter read the speech as Bryan’s attempt to bury a burgeoning controversy by going on the record and denouncing anti-Semitism—in other words, Hofstadter read the speech as if it filled the same kind of function that Barack Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech would serve, extricating him from the controversy around the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.
Pollack argued that the speech was not so defensive in nature: in context, Bryan appeared to have been taking an opportunity to denounce the Republican Party for trying to start a rumor of anti-Semitism, but he did not seem to be overly concerned about it, pointing out that the Free Silver forces were as critical of J. P. Morgan as they were of the Rothschilds. “We are not attacking a race; we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion,” he avowed.
Pollack was probably right both that Bryan was not seriously troubled by the GOP’s effort to hang the charge of anti-Semitism around his neck and that Populist/Free Silver attacks on the Rothschilds were not meant to stir up animus toward Jews. But I think Pollack also missed Hofstadter’s point. For Hofstadter, Bryan and the Populists ought to have been aware of the import of using the Rothschild family to make their points about the money supply. For Hofstadter, it was in a sense impossible for them not to know that they were playing with a dangerous line of argument, and it was irresponsible for them to forge ahead with it any way. Intent didn’t really enter into it, or rather it did, but not in the ordinary way: it didn’t matter whether they were trying to be anti-Semitic. What mattered was whether they were trying not to be.
Later in Bryan’s speech, he takes offense at being labeled a demagogue by his detractors. He is nothing of the sort, he insists: a demagogue is someone who will say something they don’t believe just because the common people will like it. “Now, my friends, I have never advocated, during my public life, a single thing which I did not myself believe. I have proven my willingness to go down in defeat when I was in a minority rather than surrender my convictions,” he protested.
What is interesting about his definition of demagoguery is that it differs rather subtly from the one I think most journalists and even scholars tend to have in mind today. Because of the centrality of dogwhistles and the significance of plausible deniability in the post-Civil Rights era, we tend to think of demagoguery more as someone who recklessly inflames base resentments and prejudices rather than as a mere panderer. A modern demagogue — a Nixon or a Willie Horton-aided Bush 41 — rides a wave of bile to victory rather than a surge of outright enthusiasm. What is infuriating about modern demagogues is not that they prevaricate but that they provoke: it is irresponsibility rather than deceit which is the core issue. We presume that they are not ignorant of the potential harm their words may cause: we fear that they just don’t care.
Under these conditions, it is emotionally and cognitively very difficult to credit someone with ignorance when they appear to be treading in the brackish waters of prejudice. And I think this is largely the case with Tamika Mallory and our poor snowblind D.C. Councilperson. Everyone is presumed to know what things really mean: there is surely no politically active person who can just be unaware that invoking the Rothschilds summons a cavalcade of malignant insinuations. We have adopted Hofstadter’s standard.
In Serwer’s piece, he quotes Mallory describing an earlier moment when she was called out by a colleague for saying something about Jews being good with money. When that colleague privately called the comment anti-Semitic, Mallory responded by simultaneously attempting to learn while pushing back on the charge of saying something anti-Semitic.
“I asked her, ‘Could it possibly be ignorant language? … I know that it’s ignorant to say that, because it’s a negative stereotype and you reinforce that but again when you say anti-Semitic it’s very dangerous for a person like me. It sounds really bad,’” Mallory said. “So she and I had a conversation. The two things that happened in that moment were one, she basically arrested my language and explained to me why that language was not good for the Jewish community, and at the same time I explained to her why using the terminology that she used was cause for me to feel attacked. And she understood that.”
Perhaps all of this is just to say that — as historians and as human beings — the injunction that one should not attribute to malice what can be accounted for by ignorance is a hard standard to follow. There are solid political as well as historical reasons why we ought to be suspicious of claims of ignorance when it comes to racially-charged language: in the parlance of the present, ignorance (or claims to it) has been weaponized. But I think we also lose something if it is never considered an interpretive option, if we presume our sources or our interlocutors are always fully aware of the impact of their words.
Call it charity or the benefit of the doubt if you want, but it is also a kind of humility: we must recognize that we also are not in full command of the whole web of associations branching off from our utterances. We are also often snow-bound — which happens to be the title of the poem from which I nabbed this post’s title. A John Greenleaf Whittier piece, one of its more magical passages features children unable to clear a whole path from the house to the barn so instead they open a tunnel:
With mittened hands, and caps drawn low,
To guard our necks and ears from snow,
We cut the solid whiteness through.
And, where the drift was deepest, made
A tunnel walled and overlaid
With dazzling crystal: we had read
Of rare Aladdin’s wondrous cave,
And to our own his name we gave,
With many a wish the luck were ours
To test his lamp’s supernal powers.
Tunnels enclose but they also connect. An apt metaphor, I think.
Andrew Seal teaches economic history at the University of New Hampshire. This review essay originally appeared at S-USIH blog on March 20, 2018.
 Here’s the quote which Pollack pulled: “[After] Mr. M. Shapiro, on behalf of the Hebrew Demo- crats presented me a beautiful badge, one of the handsomest received during the campaign …. [I said] I appreciate, too, the kindly feeling which has prompted the presentation of this badge by the Hebrew Democrats. Our opponents have sometimes tried to make it appear that we are attacking a race when we denounce the financial policy advocated by the Rothschilds. But we are not; we are as much opposed to the financial policy of J. Pierpont Morgan as we are to the financial policy of the Rothschilds. We are not attacking a race; we are attacking greed and avarice, which know neither race nor religion. I do not know of any class of our people, who by reason of their history, can better sympathize with the struggling masses in this campaign than can the Hebrew race.” If anything, I think Pollack underplays the extent to which Bryan felt himself on solid ground: you can read the whole speech here.