Focus: The Other Within

I just started reading Focus by Arthur Miller, a novel about anti-Semitism in the Unites States. I don’t recall where I saw the book mentioned but the transformational role of new eyeglasses intrigued me since I recently acquired my first pair of reading glasses. The edition of the book I have includes an introduction by the author from 1984 with a very interesting analysis of what is behind anti-Semitism and similar kinds of prejudice:

Many of the same contradictory things were being said about Vietnamese who had been settled in Cambodia for generations, and they too were more industrious than the natives, of doubtful loyalty, on the verge of being spies for Communist Vietnam despite their being fervent capitalists, and so on. Two striking similarities exist in these instances—the Chinese in Thailand and the Vietnamese in Cambodia were very frequently visible as merchants landlords or stores and small houses, peddlers, and an inordinate number of them were teachers and lawyers and intellectuals, enviable in a peasant country. They, so to speak, visibly administered the injustices of life as far as the average Thai or Cambodian could see, since it was to them one paid the rent or the limitlessly inflated prices of food and other necessities of life, and one could see with one’s own eyes how soft a life they led as intellectuals.

It is important also that the host people were self-characterized as somehow more naive than these strangers, less interested in money making and more “natural”—that is, less likely to become intellectuals…. Focus is a view of anti-Semitism that is deeply social in this particular sense: the Jew is seen by the anti-Semitic mind as the carrier of that same alienation that the indigenous people resent and fear, the same conniving exploitation. I would only add that they fear it because it is an alienation they feel in themselves, a not-belonging, a helplessly antisocial individualism that belies fervent desires to be a serving part of the mythic whole, the sublime national essence. They fear the Jew as they fear the real…

I think this explains the vicious “Tea Party” and similar movements in the U.S. right now. There is a demographic that feels that they are the “real” Americans, who are being disenfranchised by highly educated political elites from somewhere else who are out to rob them of every penny and perhaps of freedom itself. I’ve long had a suspicious that this was a form of racism, and here Miller explains it all. There is a particular kind of prejudice against a successful minority, most evident in anti-Semitism, that is at work in the U.S. right now. Racial identity is not the essential distinction (though it obviously plays a part in the current phenomenon)—accurate distinction is the domain of intellectuals anyway. What “the people” want is a shadowy, amorphous boogeyman they can shape according to their own insecurities and imagined grievances. The less defined the enemy is the better.

What I find especially intriguing is how the presence of this “foreign” elite disrupts the national myth the common person needs to feel like they belong to the whole. I suspect this “sublime” national myth must include conflict, and sure enough I hear Sarah Palin, the national figurehead of down-home anti-intellectualism, is eager to make war on Iran even though the U.S. military and economy is at its weakest point in generations. Their fear of the real has effectively obliterated reality from their consciousness. I just hope they don’t obliterate anything else.


7 comments on “Focus: The Other Within

  1. My husband and I were talking about that the other day, though instead of anti-Semitism, anti immigration. The town we live in is predominantly Latino (or is it hispanic? I forget which one is pc) and you can't go anywhere without Spanish translations being offered. I heard a few years ago that in ten years that it will be the largest demographic in the US. As we were driving around looking at all the Mexican restaurants I mentioned that to Arnel and laughed thinking how nervous this would make an old white man. Not the king of the world any more are you? How's that fence coming?

  2. Fay Sheco says:

    Thank you for this. It was a pleasure to read.

    The only non-fiction Arthur Miller I've read is his _Salesman in Beijing_ about the mounting of _Death of a Salesman_ there. He had a terrible time trying to convince the Chinese company to drop the broad Western stereotypes and present the characters as if they were Chinese people in a similar situation. He finally succeeded.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Autodidact, indeed it does feel different when you're not the majority, or the minority, any more. When I went to Hawaii I was surprised by how much more relaxed I felt because everyone around me was brown—Hawaiian, Japanese, Chinese, Filipino—even the white people were brown! 😉 I hadn't realized I felt slightly tense living in a predominantly Caucasian place, but I guess I do.

    Fay, I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Believe it or not I've never seen “Death of a Salesman.” I think I will leave it for a while—I can only take so much neurosis!

  4. It's rare for a Caucasian person to feel that so many do not understand it. I was a t a party once, hundred or so people and suddenly realized I was the only white person there. At first it was unnerving and then I found it amusing. I suppose it was good for me since I'll be the only white person in my family.

  5. Sylvia says:

    It's probably good for people to experience both being in the minority and the majority to get a look at both sides. Mixing and mingling is a good thing!

  6. aprilsunny says:

    I felt like the outsider when travelling by bus in Fiji in the 1970's. I was uncomfortable with the stares, and noted people looking at my arms which, of course, were ***white***. A smile was a way to connect that allowed me to feel more comfortable.

    Sylvia, I find this piece of your work to be most enlightening with respect to the recent teaparty phenomenon in the US. I had suspected such a dynamic, but you put it eloquently into words. Thank you.

  7. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, aprilsunny. What I left out is that the right-wing powers-that-be have capitalized on this dynamic and are using it to control people through their propaganda machine, Fox “News,” and the sympathetic megachurches. I doubt the followers could have organized on their own, but they are now being organized by very smart people who have no scruples about telling the most outrageous lies to get people to do what they want. It's ironic that people so concerned with freedom are being played like puppets.

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