Perhaps I’m just so dispirited after a year of being forced to analyze and discuss Joe Manchin on a daily basis. But I find myself compelled to resort to media criticism for the second time in a week. I read this morning that Whoopi Goldberg has been suspended for two weeks from The View for her earlier comments about the Holocaust. This whole episode is a testament to the general insipidness of our public culture.
Goldberg’s comments were clearly rooted in ignorance rather than malevolence. She not only issued a genuine apology rather than a half-assed ‘I’m sorry if anyone was offended’ type apology. She also spoke to people, privately and publicly, and seemingly learned why her comments were wrongheaded and corrected herself. ABC’s suspension was needless and stupid. It will be derided as “cancel culture.” But it’s really more the kind of corporate ass-covering that only discredits the values it purports to serve. It’s a consequence that, as far as I can tell, basically no one was asking for.
If you’re going to put on a show where a group of people talk freely and off the cuff about every topic under the sun you’re going to have to expect that some of them will sometimes say dumb things. If it is neither mean-spirited nor resistant to correction in most cases it’s worth moving on.
Goldberg’s comments don’t come from nowhere. They grow out of a shallowness in our public dialogue about race, racism and equality — not perhaps from people who think deeply about these matters but in the way much of that thinking gets boiled down into public conversations and sloganeering. Goldberg’s comments grow out of an essentialism about racism and “whiteness” that reduces not only the magnitude of the Holocaust but, more importantly, the history and anti-Semitism that led to it to no more than a disagreement among white people that somehow got out of hand. It is a kind of thinking that isn’t new but has grown apace as the U.S. has attempted a more focused and intensive reckoning with the role of racism in its own past and present in the last two years especially.
There is no objective or scientific verdict on whether Jews are a “race.” But that is because race isn’t a scientific or objective thing at all. In the painfully cliched formulation, it is simply a social construct, and thus as real as a particular society and culture chooses to make it. That doesn’t diminish its impact; money is also a social construct. The truth is that what we call racism in the United States and the anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust are products of the same mix of ideas, power relations and violence.