Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Capitalization and the Jew: A gauge of contempt

Two permises:

1. In English, the names of days of the week, months, languages are capitalized, as are demonyms, like Englishman, Arab, African. A demonym is a word that denotes the members of a people or the inhabitants of a place.

2. Contempt is intense form of disrespect. It is diffrent from hatred in that it is hierarachical. That is, contempt is connected to feelings of superiority. Condescension is a symptom of contempt. The target of contempt is considered as unmeriting of any value, beyond redemption, unworthy of being treated with equal respect.

Jeffrey Goldberg writes a review of the Mearsheimer and Walt’s modernized medieval tractate, which is an enhanced, expanded and bloated version of an article they published last spring in the London Review of Books, in which he mentions:

“In the article, the word "lobby" was ominously capitalized, Robert Ludlum style, as "the Lobby," to connote the perfect grip of pro-Israel activists upon Washington. In their new book, which builds on (and worsens) that earlier work, Mearsheimer and Walt lower-case the word "lobby," as a small tribute, I suppose, to the reality-based community.”

I thought of some ironical precedents about Jews and the problem of capitalization.

For example, Holocaust spelled holocaust when referring to the Sho’ah, has come to assume intent at pejoration. According to the ADL, in the 2001 U.N. World Conference Against Racism, “The term has been downgraded by spelling it with a lower-case "h" and pluralizing it as "holocaust(s). This trivializes the Holocaust and the memory of its victims. Just as terms like genocide are used to describe specific events, the Holocaust was a unique example of anti-Semitism leading to a state-engineered extermination of an entire people.”

Most readers probably don’t even notice this small nuance. But once you have become aware, try noticing who uses the capitalized H Holocaust, and who prefers the lower-case holocaust. There might be lesson in it.

Another example came to mind, concerning capitalization.

Remember the definition of capitalization and its usage, which open this post? That in English, the names of demonyms like Englishman, Arab, African, are capitalized?

T.S. Eliot had some problems with Jews. By which I mean, he was pretty obviously an antisemite who wrote unflinchingly that "any large number of free-thinking Jews (is) undesirable”.

And his scintillating poetry is laced with the most palpably poetical loathing of Jews that was ever inspired by a genuine muse. As in:


My house is a decayed house,

And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner,

Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp,

Blistered in Brussels, patched and peeled in London.

Or in:

Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar

On the Rialto once.

The rats are underneath the piles.

The jew is underneath the lot.

Money in furs.

Notice anything? The “Jew” is not capitalized. What can it mean, when English clearly regulates that a demonym or gentilic, that is, a word that designates the members of a people or the inhabitants of a place, be capitalized? Does Eliot regard Jews as non-people? As not meriting the designation of people? I’m not too keen on guessing his intent but what comes forth clearly is that it is means to express some repugnance.

The genius of T.S. Eliot’s creative imagination, sadly, did not stretch to making a good a case for himself, when his Jewish friends inquired about these… oddities. When these exact same poems were re-published, after the magnitude and horror of the Holocaust had just been unleashed upon a world still numb with the trauma of WWII, the best he could do to rectify these rhymes was to capitalize the “Jew”. Which to me suggests a deliberative intent in his first usage. It was not a passing whim.

So here we have a recurrent phenomenon, strange in its linguistic manifestation: A lobby “ominously capitalized ...as "the Lobby," to connote a mighty structure of irresistible power, an insistence from all kinds of saintly activists that the Holocaust be downgraded to a holocaust, so as to deny and dilute the uniqueness and role of the Nazi project in the decimation of the Jewish people, and then, an odd antipathy by a celebrated poet of rare perspicacity to mark the “jews” with any singularity.

Leslie Fiedler, in his 1991 memoir Fiedler on the Roof, writes about Eliot:

I wrote to [Eliot], asking him about the obsessive hostility betrayed in [his anti-Semitic poetry]. I was expecting, I think, a recantation, an apology at least, since at the moment at which I opened our correspondence the full horror of the Holocaust had been revealed. He began in his response by trying -- rather unconvincingly, it seemed to me -- to assure me that he was, of course, opposed to the Nazis' "Final Solution," that, indeed, he considered anti-Semitism a "heresy"; but he then went on to write, in a cliché almost as offensive as spelling the name of my people without a capital letter, that some of his best friends were Jews. And he concluded by unctuously expressing the hope that I was a faithful attendant of a synagogue in Missoula, Montana, which is to say, not, at least, "free-thinking."

What does it all mean?


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