Monday, April 17, 2017

The Epidemiology of Antisemitism

The New York Times has hired conservative columnist Bret Stephens, lately of the Wall Street Journal, to provide an additional conservative perspective to the Grey Lady. Controversy immediately erupted, first over Stephens status as a climate-change denier, and then more recently over a 2016 column that characterized antisemitism as "the disease of  the Arab mind" (it came in the context of an Egyptian Olympian who refused to shake the hand of his Israeli competitor).

NYT Cairo Bureau chief kicked off the discussion with this tweet:


And his colleague Max Fisher succinctly articulating what I think is our legitimate squeamishness at hearing an entire group of people characterized as possessing a "disease of the mind."


Now, I've responded to a Bret Stephens column once, and it was not one I was impressed by -- a tiresome bit of neocolonialist claptrap seeking to establish which peoples are sufficiently civilized to deserve self-determination. So I don't have any particular interest in defending Stephens per se.

That said, this controversy did interest me because of an angle I don't think I've yet seen explored: the widespread literature on the "epidemiological" approach to racism. I first came across this view in an article by prominent Critical Race Theorist Charles Lawrence III, but it is hardly restricted to him. It is a perspective that is at least familiar to anyone who spends significant time in the literature on contemporary racism and prejudice.

The epidemiological view treats racism as, well, a disease -- a public health crisis that demands intervention. Among the motivations for articulating racism in this way is the belief that an epidemiological approach steps away from the focus on conscious choices (we don't choose to be infected) and with it, the politics of blame (we don't view cancer patients as being morally inferior because they have a disease). Rather, thinking of racism as a disease channels our focus onto (a) the devastating social consequences that can occur when racism is widespread and unchecked, and (b) what we can do to check the spread and, eventually, find a cure.

As it turns out, the use of the epidemiological approach for antisemitism has deep roots -- deeper, perhaps, than its use to analyze racism. Re-reading Lawrence's article while writing this post, I discovered that it actually contains a significant discussion of antisemitism as disease, as an epidemic -- and one that he investigates through the specific case of Black antisemitism right alongside the parallel case of Jewish racism.  Even more interestingly, a 1949 book by Carey McWilliams on "Anti-Semitism in America" claims to have found "hundreds" of examples of antisemitism being defined in epidemiological terms -- a "theme" that runs through descriptions of what antisemitism is. Among the statements he found was the claim that antisemitism is, simply, "a disease of Gentile peoples."

Under this view, then, the rhetoric of epidemiology and disease is meant to be gentler -- not stigmatizing to those it labels, not concerned with separating out the bad people from the good. But as Fisher observes, there is at the very least another set of tropes associated with "disease" rhetoric that is not so benign. Under the latter usage, "disease" connotes those groups which are dirty and mutated; those who need to be isolated, sequestered, or purged. Rhetoric of various outgroups -- including Jews, Arabs, immigrants of all backgrounds -- being "diseased" and therefore dangerous has a been a staple of racist fearmongering for generations. Again, it is not for nothing that we squirm when we hear talk of a group being "diseased".

I don't think that Stephens was intentionally referring to the literature on the epidemiology of racism. But leaving his particular case aside, here's my question: Do the concerns of Fisher et al mean that the epidemiological approach is inherently tainted and must be abandoned? If not, what interventions are necessary so as to use the method (and its necessarily attendant rhetoric of disease, infection, and so on) without triggering these problematic associations?

My familiarity with the epidemiological approach gives me some sympathy towards it -- I think it is at least a useful way of thinking through how racism and antisemitism operate, how they spread, and how they should be combatted. Yet at the same time, my familiarity with how rhetoric of disease is used to degrade and dehumanize means I am sympathetic to the concerns that it would do so here. The questions in the previous paragraph are those made entirely in earnest, and I in turn invite earnest replies.

1 comment:

Ben Faber said...

You noted 2 significant motivations for using the epidemiological framing - to paraphrase: 1, reduce individual recriminations/blame, and 2, focus on systems-level solutions.
It seems to me that the evidence of the 1st is the 2nd. Talk about group faults can be solution focused, or it can be recriminatory in blaming *every* individual. The article in question seems to do the latter, and the evidence that it wasn't doing that would be if it were talking about fixing the problem, rather than pointing out all the different ways that the group of people has the problem.