Theodor Adorno and the Failure of “Prejudice” to Account for Anti-Semitism

March 4 2019

The son of a Catholic mother and Jewish father who had converted to Lutheranism, the German philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno emigrated to the U.S. after the Nazis came to power. Thereafter he devoted serious attention to anti-Semitism, which he had fled, and American racism, which he was encountering for the first time. Eric Oberle, in a recent book, explores the connections between the two in Adorno’s thought. In his review, James Loeffler finds a thread running from Adorno’s theories to the inability of much current thinking about racism, prejudice, and “intersectionality” to account for the hatred of Jews:

Oberle’s book is full of pathbreaking insights rendered in a dense, fast-paced but crystalline prose. . . . In the end, though, it leaves unanswered the precise question of how Adorno saw the relationship between anti-Semitism and racism. It is not clear whether Adorno ever really resolved the tension between his Marxian universalism and “the demands of particularity.” Did he go far enough in his recognition of the pluralistic nature of human experience—and the varieties of identity that the world has produced? Happily, we can look forward to Oberle’s promised second volume, continuing this crucial endeavor of intellectual history.

Meanwhile, events in our day continue to exhibit the ongoing relevance of Adorno’s insight that [what he termed] “positive” and “negative identities”—subjective self-affirmation and external societal marking—operate in tandem. Any account of anti-Semitism must [therefore] grapple with the distinctive character of Jewish identity. That is why the problem of anti-Semitism continues to resist easy incorporation into a general theory of prejudice—generalization requires congruence among all units in the category. But where do Jewish people fit in the roster of other oppressed minorities? Neither color nor class neatly applies. Nor does sexuality. Even religion cannot capture the scope of anti-Semitism, as the case of Adorno himself, [who knew nothing of Judaism], perfectly illustrates.

That may help explain why Adorno’s latter-day heirs, the social theorists of intersectionality, have struggled so much with how to slot anti-Semitism into their theories of prejudice. Like the spokespeople of Columbia University, [who after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre released a statement that mentioned neither anti-Semitism nor Jews], they remain captive to their own limited understandings of the Jewish identity under attack.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Frankfurt School, History & Ideas, Racism

War with Iran Isn’t on the Horizon. So Why All the Arguments against It?

As the U.S. has responded to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, various observers in the press have argued that National Security Advisor John Bolton somehow seeks to drag President Trump into a war with Iran against his will. Matthew Continetti points out the absurdities of this argument, and its origins:

Never mind that President Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, and Bolton have not said a single word about a preemptive strike, much less a full-scale war, against Iran. Never mind that the president’s reluctance for overseas intervention is well known. The “anti-war” cries are not about context, and they are certainly not about deterring Iran. Their goal is saving President Obama’s nuclear deal by manipulating Trump into firing Bolton and extending a lifeline to the regime.

It’s a storyline that originated in Iran. Toward the end of April, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif showed up in New York and gave an interview to Reuters where he said, “I don’t think [Trump] wants war,” but “that doesn’t exclude him basically being lured into one” by Bolton. . . . And now this regime talking point is everywhere. “It’s John Bolton’s world. Trump is just living in it,” write two former Obama officials in the Los Angeles Times. “John Bolton is Donald Trump’s war whisperer,” writes Peter Bergen on CNN.com. . . .

Recall Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes’s admission to the New York Times Magazine in 2016 [that] “We created an echo chamber” to attack the Iran deal’s opponents through leaks and tips to the D.C. press. . . . Members of the echo chamber aren’t for attacking Iran, but they are all for slandering its American opponents. The latest target is Bolton. . . .

The Iranians are in a box. U.S. sanctions are crushing the economy, but if they leave the agreement with Europe they will be back to square one. To escape the box you try to punch your way out. That’s why Iran has assumed a threatening posture: provoking an American attack could bolster waning domestic support for the regime and divide the Western alliance.

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More about: Barack Obama, Iran, Javad Zarif, John Bolton, U.S. Foreign policy