ERUPTION OF DORMANT POISONS: American racism / European anti-Semitism

dormancy, poisons

Long-rejected values may actually persist in a dormant state, and be available for unexpected eruption.

I am thinking of racism in present-day-America and anti-Semitism in much of modern European history. Each of these is suddenly erupting after having been Unmentionable – as was open anti-Semitism in “modern, enlightened” Europe and as was open anti-black racism in post- slavery and post-Civil-Rights Movement America. Yet we are seeing eruptions of both of these right now. So it is time to ask an uncomfortable question about the state of some of our prevailing values, such as opposition to racism.

Not so long ago Americans assumed that crude racism that supported slavery of black people in America had surely been outlived, surpassed by accepting black people as simply being part of the American population mainstream. This received a very special expression with the election of the black president, Barack Obama. But we are now seeing anti-black racism expressed on college campuses and, I am inclined to think, in the fierce hatred of the black president by so large a section of the American political electorate. It would seem that what was believed to be outlawed by Civil Rights legislation succeeded largely in making crude, anti-black racism DORMANT rather than eliminated from the public culture repertoire of American values. It is evidently still available for activation.

I personally experienced the eruption of DORMANT anti-Semitic hatred after my birth in Germany. That country, with its very modern, sophisticated, highly educated population – where crude anti-Semitism had long been relegated to an Unmentionable past – saw the re-emergence of the most lethal, and publicly accepted form of anti-Semitism upon the arrival of Hitler and his Nazi regime. I could similarly mention the French case of eruptions of anti-Semitism – in the Dreyfuss Affair a hundred years ago and, right now, in present-day “modern” France. You get the picture.

The larger issue is this: We often assume that crude forms of currently Unmentionable dispositions and values — which violate much of what most of us stand for — may actually persist in DORMANT form long after they were believed to have been outlived, and surpassed by new standards of communal living. The unaddressed question is: How are such malignant dormancies perpetuated in the face of an enlightened public that seemed to have outgrown them long ago?

A note about DORMANCY in the life of the individual: In my book sub-titled “How we cope in Social Space” (*) I suggest that in our personal life we sometimes have to deal with things that are nasty and publicly Unmentionable. We tend to shunt these things into a silent Second Path – which avoids unpleasantness, but occasionally erupts in unexpected ways. This is a bit similar to Freud’s notions of the Unconscious and Subconscious. Freud saw the root of these in early childhood experiences. By contrast, I see the root in everyday life – where we quite often place Unmentionable things “in storage” in a Second Path that can have a life of its own – sometimes erupting in ugly ways.
(*) The full title of the book is: “Our quest for effective living: A window to a new science / How we cope in Social Space”.