The Common Sense of White Male Supremacy

I want to refer you to a January 14 article by Elana Schor for the Associated Press and carried by Religion News Service: “Anti-Semitism seen in Capitol attack raises alarms.” In the article Schor reports on the presence of anti-Semitic activists, symbols and expressions in the lynch mob that invaded the Capitol building on January 6, 2021. She notes that “the Miller Center for Community Protection and Resilience at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the Network Contagion Research Institute released a report that identified at least half a dozen neo-Nazi or white supremacist groups involved in the insurrection.”

As I noted the presence of these groups, symbols and expressions of anti-Semitic hatred and violence during the January 6 attack, I knew that I needed to return to a seminal book for deeper understanding. Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, details how ordinary Germans supported and participated in the Holocaust by choice rather than coercion. I will walk through that book in detail in my next “Throwback Thursday Books” post. For now, I want to look at just one aspect of Goldhagen’s work.

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From the beginning of the nineteenth century,” he writes, “antisemitism was ubiquitous in Germany. It was its ‘common sense’” (page 77). It is easy to forget that reality, if one ever knew it at all (although we Lutherans should never, ever forget it and our part in that). Antisemitism was a central organizing principle of German social and political life from the Middle Ages to the middle of the twentieth century. It morphed, as Goldhagen describes, from an assimilationist perspective to an “eliminationist” program in large part following the “emancipation” of Jews in Germany after 1848.

Assimilation was a sort of cultural elimination, since the idea was that Jews would gradually become European Christians and thus evaporate. “Built into emancipation itself—an emancipation that proceeded upon a cultural model of Jews derived from hostile Christianity—was the belief that Jews would disappear,” Goldhagen writes, “since Jews refused to do so, the false promises of emancipation created all but a structural guarantee that antisemitism would develop new virulence…” (page 78). When Jews refused to disappear “naturally,” the next step was to make them disappear systematically.

Elimination was just what it sounds like – programmatic extermination. This is what Goldhagen describes as the “common sense” of nineteenth and twentieth century German culture. It was unnecessary for the Nazis to invent German antisemitism or to infuse it with a genocidal impulse. It was only necessary for Hitler to energize and enact the common sense which was already there.

The intersection of Goldhagen’s book and the Capitol insurrection raises several terrifying thoughts for me.

The first is that antisemitism does not come and go. It hibernates. Goldhagen notes that the explicitly anti-Semitic political parties in Germany in the late 1800’s ceased to exist, not because antisemitism was rejected, but rather because it became a part of the mainstream political platforms. Thus, the fringe parties were no longer necessary. “Again, this meant not that antisemitism was dissipating,” Goldhagen notes, “but that it was merely less articulated and therefore partly disappeared from view. It would erupt again with great force only a few years hence” (page 76).

Who needs fringe political parties in our system when virulent racism walks into the halls of local, state and federal government on a daily basis?

Goldhagen’s work reminds me that antisemitism, like white male supremacy, is a dual process phenomenon. The “emancipation” of Jews (a stunning connection to America in the same period) was met with a virulent revival of antisemitic rhetoric, behavior, literature, politics, and violence. Modest moves toward toleration were met with the full development of eliminationist theory and practice. The primary reason that a full-blown genocide did not occur sooner was that Germans were distracted by the run-up to World War I.

Antisemitism was a dormant fuel needing only the right conditions to burst into full flame. Those conditions in Germany were the economic and social collapse following the First World War, and the rise of Nazi grievance culture in response to the defeat and devastation.

All that was needed was a bunch of angry white men who were sure they had been robbed of what was rightfully theirs. All it took was a culture certain that they were entitled to dominate and to root out the Other who stood in their way. All it took was an Other who could be blamed for all that was wrong in individual lives and in the lives of the aggrieved collective.

That’s all it took then…and now.

“It is thus incontestable that the fundamentals of Nazi antisemitism, the antisemitic brew that spawned Nazi thinking about the Jews, had deep roots in Germany, was part of the cultural cognitive model of German society, and was integral to German political culture,” Goldhagen concludes, “It is incontestable that racial antisemitism was the salient form of antisemitism in Germany and that it was broadly part of the public conversation of German society” (pages 74-75). It was not only common sense. To suggest any other way of looking at the world was to be a radical, a subversive, a communist(!), and an enemy of the Volk and the state.

We should be clear that this continues to be common sense for a number of our neighbors. Varieties and degrees of antisemitism participate in our Christian worship services weekly. Not only is antisemitism its own form of cultural cancer, but it also fits neatly into the larger framework of white male supremacy on display among us.

What leads a large number of people to find the violence of January 6 to be a credible, reasonable, and coherent set of actions, worthy of extended reflection and planning?

While there is plenty of the deranged, demented, and demonic in that crowd, that’s not sufficient for our understanding. For most Americans for most of our history, white male supremacy has been “common sense.” Hard as that might be for some of us white men to absorb, it is true. Identifying, resisting, and seeking to dismantle that common sense is the innovation. Suggesting that no one is entitled to power, privilege, and position simply based on gender and skin tone is the novelty. Common sense may slip below the surface at times, but all it takes is a combination of change and demagoguery for it to explode into potency.

We can diagnose this for antisemitism, in part, because everything old is new again. According to Schor’s report, “Eric Ward, executive director of the progressive anti-discrimination group Western States Center, linked the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon, adherents of which were at the forefront of the insurrection, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous 20th-century screed that falsely claimed Jews were colluding to take over the world.” This is the basis for a deranged white man attacking a New Jersey pizza parlor in search of Hillary Clinton and her ring of pedophiliacs a few years ago.

In much the same way, the white male supremacists at the heart of the January 6 lynch mob rely on the Turner Diaries as their bible and handbook for their own eliminationist fantasies. The Turner Diaries and related documents lead in the end to a worldwide campaign to eliminate every nonwhite human being from the planet in order to achieve “peace.” Goldhagen’s work provides the chilling German parallel. “Modern German anti-Semites,” he writes, “unlike their medieval forebears, could say that there would be no peace on earth until the Jews were destroyed” (page 77).

As a Christian, I must ask myself and my fellow Jesus followers, what do we regard as “common sense”? That takes work and help from outsiders, since most common sense is about as visible to us as the air we breathe. Jewish interpreters of Scripture help us to see that many of our founding documents and certainly our interpretations of them are profoundly antisemitic. There are some New Testament texts that I can no longer read in public worship for that reason and others which require extended explanation and caution if they are to be used.

That reticence is regarded by some Christians as heterodox, but I read somewhere that “you shall know them by their fruits.”

The natural and rightful hegemony of white, male Christianity is regarded as common sense. It’s obvious on the face of things that we continue to regard white male supremacy in and out of the church as “common sense.” Just try to challenge the assumptions of that view in most white Christian congregations, and the proof will be quick in appearing. In the best of times, we white Christians will talk about anything else – even politics, sex, or money – rather than to talk about racism and antiracism. In most places we can’t even call this conversation “antiracist” because that’s too confrontational.

Of course, during The Pandemic we have the perfect distraction to keep us from thinking about what it would mean to be Dr. King’s “Beloved Community.” We have the ideal excuse to focus obsessively on a whole series of white-privilege problems and to ignore a host of underlying issues. We assure ourselves that God is merely “with us” in our difficulties and ignore the possibility that God might be longing for us to repent and grow as a result of our struggles.

We treat the necessary connection between whiteness and Christianity as common sense. We treat the capitalist invisible hand of the market as common sense. We treat the potential for armed violence in order to stand our ground as common sense. We treat the right to take what we want from others and from the earth as common sense. Is it any wonder that moves toward justice, peace, sustainability, and equity are treated as subversive and “communist”?

I’ll have more on Goldhagen’s book in my post next Thursday. But this was too much on my heart and mind to wait for that.