On Racism and the Ilk or Why I Can’t Be On The Left

David Schraub, at The Debate Link: The Trouble with Anti-Semitism has a post up recounting a discussion on anti-Semitism:

Stop trying to silence our voices by accusing us of playing the anti-Semitism card. Stop running us together with White, European Christianity. Stop forgetting the unique issues, burdens, history, and violence that Jews have face and continue to face in an anti-Semitic world. Stop ignoring the presence of anti-Semitism as a structural, institutional phenomenon that shapes the very fabric of our society and infects the vision of all people at all levels of society

From a basic (likely faulty) recollection of Kant’s Metaphysic of Morals, we need to attempt to universalize our ethic in order to see if it is valid. That is, to imagine any moral decision as Universally applied … and if that seems ok … then the notion is moral. So, besides Jews, we have Blacks, Turks, Armenians, Ukrainian, Russian, Bulgarian, Japanese, any of a (likely) hundred or so Chinese ethnic groups, Tibetan, Mongolian, Romany, Anglo-Saxon, Catholic, and the list goes on. I’d imagine that a small classroom could generate a list of over 1,000 special interest groups (10,000+?) each staking a claim to existence and each having their own “unique issues, et al”. For each, then, Mr Schraub would have us remember the “unique issues, burdens, history, and violence that “Group X” have face and continue to face in an anti-“Group X” world.” With X a set numbering in the thousands. How exhausting. (How worthless)

What I wonder is how anyone has the energy to be liberal/progressive at that rate.  My guess is … they don’t. Do they imagine they do?

Seems to me, if you treat everyone with respect (image of God and all that) you don’t have to know their individual story and past histories based on their covering/badging state.  But, that’s just the simple view from the right.

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  1. Kant’s universalizing standard always struck me as rather ridiculous. To take my favored example, suppose I jump into a lake to save a drowning child. What universal maxim have I just created? That I must always save drowning children? Or always save children whose lives are in danger? Or save anyone whose life is in danger? Or assist anyone in distress in a lake, regardless of whether their life is threatened or not? Do I only have to do it on Mondays (a universal obligation to save lives every Monday), or all week long? What if Hitler is drowning in a lake — or what if I pushed the Gestapo agent coming to deport me into the local municipal reservoir? Does the maxim extend to rivers and oceans, or does it just apply to lakes? Or perhaps I just have a universal obligation to jump into lakes whenever I walk by, and it doesn’t matter what I do when I get there? It’s senseless. Every situation has similarities and differences from every other — the act of universalization necessarily involves elevating some of these similarities/differences and suppressing others. Kant is just as arbitrary as anything else.

    As these examples indicate, the context of a given situation matters greatly to whether an action is morally obligatory or not. Far from universalizing our moral cases, it’s important to keep them in perspective — the “call to context”, as the Crit saying goes. You can’t help Jews unless you know the history of Jews. You don’t know what treating us in a dignified manner means unless you know about our own cultural practices and behavior (lest you, in what I’m sure you’d imagine is a very warm gesture, greet the Chief Rabbi of Israel with a nice ham dinner and some shrimp cocktails to start the evening!).

    Insofar as any particular ethnic group is oppressed, their oppression should be viewed as a specific, not a general. We shouldn’t assume that one group’s oppression is the same as anyone else’s — particularly if they themselves assert it’s different. I don’t make any claim as to how difficult or easy this path is. Indeed, I’ve written that liberalism can be seen as an endless marathon. But then, I doubt even Kant would support a theory of morality (universally held) that lets laziness (“I don’t have the energy to do the right thing!”) trump ethics. When it comes to morality, I don’t see my obligation as pointing to the easy way — just the right way.

  2. Mark says:

    Well, you can certainly mock Kant, even if it looks like you haven’t grasped what he’s saying. Are you mocking him, because you felt I was mocking you. If so, I apologize. I was trying to say, clumsily, that in attempting to request that “we all” keep conscious of your special Jewish heritage, that because we all have special heritage, your specialness is in fact ordinary.

    And I’m sorry I don’t have to know your personal history (based on your badging) to treat you with respect. Politeness, cheerfulness, and as much empathy as have to offer is quite enough. After all, you might find your Ukrainian dinner guest is an enthusiastic American emigre, and relishes American culture and cuisine, and thus reacts to your proffered cold beet soup with less than the expected enthusiasm, to ape your culinary example.

    I’m not saying “your way” is just the “hard way”. It’s the frankly impossible way.

    By the way, you should not “jump into a lake” to save someone. Extend a stick or throw a line, or the equivalent. First look to give them something to grab to bring them to shore not endanger yourself by entering the water as well.

  3. I am mocking Kant, not because I thought I was being mocked, but because Kant is quite deserving of mockery. The idea of a universalizable moral obligation is premised upon a flatly false belief that different experiences are exchangeable with each other (that there is “another” experience that this one can be perfectly analogized to and thus not just offer guidance, but create a maxim).

    With regards to Mr. Ukrainian, Professor Iris Marion Young might have an easy way out of your intractable dilemma: ask him. Nothing but the voice of the Other can replace the voice of the Other, after all. So I might ask my Ukrainian friend, “I’ve read that beet soup is a Ukrainian delicacy. Would you like me to make some when you come over to dinner tomorrow?” And he might answer “Yes, I’d love that! I haven’t had a meal that reminded me from home in ages!” Or he might answer “No thanks. I was hoping to try some genuine American cuisine. And no offense, but you’d probably screw up Ukrainian cuisine if you tried it.” (Of course, for religious Jews eating Kosher isn’t a preference, it’s an obligation, so it’s not really an analogous situation anyway). And of course, such a question assumes that you know Ukrainian’s have their own unique culinary customs from your own — something that requires research and sensitivity to their differences. Mutual respect is a twin function of dialogue (so they can represent their own experience) and awareness (so you have an inkling of what questions to ask). If you didn’t know anything about Jews, you wouldn’t even know to ask whether or not they needed to eat in a Kosher kitchen. Knowing that information is important even if it turns out your friend is Reform. Either way, the more you know, the more likely it is that you won’t do something disrespectful and stupid.

    Which gets back to the final point, which is the potential impossibility of “my way”. Once again, this doesn’t mean it isn’t right (indeed, my “endless marathon” comparison would seem to concede the point), it just means we may live in a sucky world. But even if we can’t achieve perfection, that’s no excuse not to try. The easy road to the wrong answer is still worse than the difficult (or even endless) path towards justice.

  4. Mark says:

    On the first, your interpretation of Kant’s metaphysic is not at all how I recall or what I got from it. It seemed to me, the notion was that one might, on making ones decision ask, “How would the world turn out if everyone did what I’m about to do?” If the answer is “OK”, then … it’s moral. If not, it isn’t. It isn’t a the idea of a universalized concrete ethic, it’s instead a meta-ethical methodology.

    So, to summarize your notion, that what you are saying is that we don’t have to “Stop forgetting the unique issues, burdens, history, and violence that Jews … we just talk. That sounds exactly like what I proposed, treating each separately as unique persons worthy of respect as they are in the image of God. No need to be endlessly cognizant and researching “issues, burdens, et al”

  5. […] a recent conversation (blogwise) with David Schraub of the Debate Link, Mr Schraub notes: Kant’s universalizing […]