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.