Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics


We now have Donald Trump’s final argument for his election, which basically amounts to saying that manly man Donald Trump will beat down the foreigners and Jews — George Soros, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankenfein — who are secretly pulling the strings behind the political establishment. (Speaking of Janet Yellen, I have to confess that I hadn’t noticed that the Federal Reserve had been led by elders of Zion Jews — three of them Republicans — for all but nine years since 1970.)

I think often of a public lecture that Yale history professor John Boswell gave in the 1980s with the title “Jews and Bicycle-riders”. The title came from a celebrated anti-Nazi joke of the 1930s: A Jew is pushed off his bicycle by a Brownshirt, who looms over him and screams “Who is responsible for Germany’s misfortunes?” “The Jews,” replies the trembling Jew, “and the bicycle riders.” “Why the bicycle riders?” asks the Nazi. And he replies: “Why the Jews?”

Boswell’s lecture was mainly about homosexuality, pointing out that prejudice against gay people had risen and fallen over the past two millennia, and tended to parallel the ups and downs of antisemitism, and to be promoted by the same people. The joke suggests that antisemitism is irrational and arbitrary, and has nothing really to do with the Jews; Boswell extends this to say that antisemitism and homophobia are both targets of convenience for what is really an anti-urban, anti-cosmopolitan agenda.

(The bicycle-riders in the joke are supposed to be an obviously ridiculous target of discrimination. Boswell might have been amused to know that in the febrile politics of the 21st century, bicycle-riders have also become a frequent target of right-wing abuse — for example, Colorado Republican who called Denver cycling initiatives “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty” and Rob Ford in Toronto: “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later you’re going to get bitten… The cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.”)

Obviously part of the point was that the credibility of antisemitism was at a low point in the mid-1980s, while discrimination against sexual minorities was decidedly respectable. From the perspective of 2016 things look decidedly different. Homophobia us barely tolerated in polite circles, while antisemitism is ascendant. I’m sure I thought in 1985 that the downward trajectory of antisemitism was inevitable — it was so obviously irrational — while the rights of gay and lesbian people seemed to need fighting for. In retrospect, I see that no matter how marginalised they may be, both of them are always capable of recolonising the body politic when the right conditions return. Somehow this seems to me more obvious and intuitive with regard to homosexuality than with regard to Judaism; Boswell’s link helps to clarify the danger.

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