In Anti-Semite and Jew, Sartre claims that “anti-Semitism is an attempt to give value to mediocrity as such”, in that it is an all-encompassing ideology that defines the way that the anti-Semite sees himself, society and the people around him. Their worldview is clearly defined by hatred, inadequacy and fear, actively discouraging the pursuit of new ideas and opinions that could only provide challenge to their assumed reality. “The Anti-Semite has chosen hate because hate is a faith; at the ouset he has chosen to devaluate words and reasons.”(Sartre/1995/17) For Sartre, anti-Semitism is a way of giving value to mediocrity through the establishment of the Other, but I feel that due to the nature of anti-Semitism, and by extension racism and chauvinism, the perpetrator’s claim of mediocrity is in itself a claim of bad faith, and allowing them that label is conceding the value of their birthright. This mindset is at its worst and most prominent in proud anti-Semites, but I will also argue that this behaviour is an integral part of the colonial system for which all we on colonized land participate. To examine this closer we must first look at the ideology of anti-Semitism to understand how it affects the perpetrators themselves.
It is important to understand that anti-Semitism is not a singular view or opinion about the Jewish people specifically. It is, as Sartre describes it, “a total choice of oneself, a comprehensive attitude that one adopts not only towards Jews but toward men in general, toward history and society; it is at one and the same time a passion and a conception of the world.” (Satre/1995/17) The anti-Semite believes simultaneously that the Jew is inferior, but also secretly controls the world. He is both collectivist capitalist and revolutionary Marxist, contrary as that plainly is. But contradictions mean nothing to the anti-Semite, as anything that confirms his core belief that all things Jewish are inherently tainted must be correct. “We have here a basic fear of oneself and of truth. What frightens them is not the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation… They do not want any acquired opinions; they want them to be innate. Since they are afraid of reasoning, they wish to lead the kind of life wherein reasoning and research play only a subordinate role, wherein one seeks only what one has already found, wherein one becomes only what he already was. There is nothing but passion.” (Sartre/1995/17) This establishes the framework of an utterly uncurious mind, one which does not seek to advance or grow individually, but rather revel in its self-proclaimed mediocrity. And yet, while the anti-Semite may revel in his ignorance, the colonist also remains blind to how their own worldview is shaped in a very similar way. In Race After Sartre, Jonathan Judaken writes that, “Discrimination functions not only cognitively and intersubjectively, but within institutions and everyday practices and policies. The racist colonial system “is embodied in a million colonists, children and grandchildren of colonists, who have been shaped by colonialism and who think, speak and act according to the very principles of the colonial system.”(CS, 43/44). The racist system therefore shaped both the colonized and the colonizer, “infecting all with its racism.”(CS, 47/48)”(Judaken/2008/36) This system relies on the construction of a worldview that is inherently unjust and perpetually in bad faith, much like that of the anti-Semite. So while we may observe the bad faith of the anti-Semite and renounce them for it, we must also observe the ways in which our unconscious participation with a system perpetuates racism, chauvinism and white supremacy. This, in part, means questioning the very nature of the label mediocre and by what metric we are determining that value.
Why does the anti-Semite strive only to be average and by what definition does he arrive there? Sartre says, “The Anti-Semite has no illusions about what he is. He considers himself an average man, modestly average, basically mediocre…. You must not think that he is ashamed of his mediocrity; he takes pleasure in it; I will even assert he has chosen it.” (Sartre/1995/22) He goes on to say, “There is a passionate pride among the mediocre, and anti-Semitism is an attempt to give value to mediocrity as such, to create an elite of the ordinary. To the anti-Semite, intelligence is Jewish; he can thus disdain in all tranquillity, like all the other virtues the Jew possess.” (Sartre/1995/23) So the anti-Semite deems himself average by establishing the innate nature of Jewishness as Other. He has no drive to rise above his fellow man as he is already above the status of Jews; his value is derived entirely from the Other. We see the same today in modern anti-blackness and chauvinism. Their claim to mediocrity only comes with the concession that we take their innate identity as something of value; a neutralizing charge that eliminates all negative aspects of their character. They are average by virtue of not being Jewish, of not being black, of not being woman, but never by any accomplishment or virtue of their own. This is why I wish to avoid allowing anti-Semites the label of mediocre, as mediocrity comes with some expectation of effort, curiosity and good faith. Their ideology is a crutch that never allows them the freedom to run, providing excuses along the way for their inadequacies and failures by blaming the Jew, the progressive, the feminist, never at any point taking responsibility for their actions. By this metric, they could never be average, as calling them such would be an insult to the earnest and hard-working average folk of the world who are capable of attempts at reason and good faith. That said, those who are truly mediocre can also fall into these traps of bad faith and identification with the cultural norms of society, often making them the greatest ally the anti-Semite has.
Whiteness (colonialism) is not so much an identity as it is a lack of one, a lack of racialization that can often be seen as neutral or passive to those holding this “identity”. As with the anti-Semite’s claim that his not being Jewish makes him average, the colonial system established that the colonist is by definition, mediocre at the very least. This gives the sense that whiteness is average by nature of not being racialized, and creates a dangerous dynamic in which the white identity is only really “activated” in solidarity against the other. “In the Critique, Sartre argues that because each member of the colonized (black) group is seen as a threat to all colonizers (whites) (CDR. 302), whites are faced with continual necessity not of enforcing their domination on those who would throw it off if they could, but of demonstrating to each that it is still enforceable. The apprehension of a threat (of black subjectivity) generates an ever-renewed demand for white solidarity and consensus.”(Judaken/2008/62) Fear is the unifier of the white identity, as whiteness is, at its core, a validation of their place within a world built on bad faith.
So even those without pronounced anti-Semitic or anti-black views, the people I suggested before as more representative of the mediocre may find this identity triggered by fear mongering and the perceived threat of the Other. This demonstrates how the mediocre can easily become the ally of the anti-Semite, as all they need to stand alongside them is the sensationalist propaganda the anti-Semite is more than willing to provide. “This is the role of racism. “Racism is the colonial interest lived as a link of all colonists” (CDR,300). That is, “racism”, is a social technology designed not only to maintain the system of social categorizations called “race”, but to be the means by which white racialized identity is continually reconstituted through its construction of a threat.” (Judaken/2008/63). Just as the anti-Semite needs the psychic construct of the Jew from which to base their world view, the colonist requires the Other to remind them that they are normal; mediocre.
What I claim contrary to the notion of anti-Semitism’s mediocrity is that it is instead an ideology of insecurity and inadequacy. By allowing them an excuse to never require individual merit the anti-Semite has an excuse never to try. Their convenient alliance with colonial mediocrity allows them to garner support without ever needing to evolve their ideas. “The Anti-Semite readily admits that the Jew is intelligent and hard-working; he will even confess himself inferior in these respects. The concession costs him nothing, for he has, as it was put those qualities in parenthesis. Or rather they derive their value from the one who possesses them: the more virtues the Jew has the more dangerous he will be.” (Sartre/1995/22) They have stripped merit and virtue of all meaning, assigning it only to the consequence of their birthright. They understand that they are inferior in a direct comparison of virtues, but they maintain the self-image of mediocrity by the assertion that their birthright has value over any virtues the Jew may hold. They have succumbed to their inadequacy by naming it mediocrity and demanding we do the same. “By treating the Jew as an inferior and pernicious being, I affirm at the same time that I belong to the elite… There is nothing I have to do to merit my superiority, and neither can I lose it. It is given once and for all. It is a thing.” (Sartre/1995/27) Allowing them to claim that they are mediocre is to give validity to the claim itself, to accept that even with all their vice and bad faith they remain average by the claim of their birthright. Further, the colonialist mindset lends the mediocre to reactionary propaganda, allowing the anti-Semite to intentionally mask their bigotry in the interest of the average man. But the anti-Semite’s only true weapon is fear, as fear is what they are born from. “He is a man who is afraid. Not of the Jews, to be sure, but of himself, of his own consciousness, of his liberty, of his instincts, of his responsibilities, of solitariness, of change, of society, and of the world – of everything except the Jews. He is a coward who does not want to admit his cowardice to himself; a murderer who represses and censures his tendency to murder without being able to hold it back, yet who dares to kill only in effigy or protected by anonymity of the mob; a malcontent who does not revolt from fear of the consequences of his rebellion. In espousing anti-Semitism, he does not simply adopt an opinion, he chooses himself as a person… He chooses to acquire nothing, to deserve nothing; he assumes that everything is given him as his birthright – and he is not noble. (Sartre/1995/53) Likewise, of the colonist, “The serial need for a threat, and its endless social reinvention in the subordinated other, constitutes a communal paranoia as the essential components of the social structure of the white racialized identity.” (Judaken/2008/71) Thus we see the basis for both anti-Semitism and colonialist superiority rooting from insecurity born from the bad faith of “race”, and the need to affirm their insecurity through subjectivation of the Other. This insecurity is ever self-fulfilling, as with it comes the framework for the lack of growth and subjectivity noted earlier as preventing them from growing as individuals.
In the end, we see how anti-Semitism is an ideology that allows its adherents to avoid self-reflection and actively discourages seeking out individual merit. By attempting to give merit to mediocrity, they cleverly win the first battle by setting the terms of the conversation. Accepting that they are mediocre is to accept that they are average, and by calling them average we are allowing them to represent themselves as the common man, thereby gaining more sway with the truly mediocre. Colonialism has provided an apparatus in which white identity is easily weaponized with the creation of the Other, and until we dismantle these systems there will always be a platform for anti-Semitism and white supremacy through the appeal of fear. I feel it’s important to understand and call out these ideologies of bigotry and hate as actively harmful and negative to both society and the people who hold these beliefs, and we should refuse to set the bar for average so low that fearful hatemongers are considered the standard-bearers of normal.
- Sartre, Jean-Paul. Anti-Semite and Jew. Schocken, April 25th, 1995
- Judaken, Jonathan. Race After Sartre: Antiracism, Africana Existentialism, Postcolonialism. SUNY Press, August 26th, 2008
- Sarte, Jean-Paul. Critique of Dialectical Reasoning. Verso, July 17, 2006 (Quoted in the quotes selected from Race After Sartre)
- Colonialism is a System (Also quoted in Race After Sartre)