The American Conservative, 9 March 2009

Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man
Benjamin Disraeli as a Young Man

A review of Adam Kirsch’s biography of Benjamin Disraeli focuses on Kirsch’s idea that because Disraeli realized he could not stop his fellow nineteenth-century Englishmen from thinking of him primarily in terms of his Jewish ancestry, he “did not attempt to disguise his Jewish background.  He embellished it.”   Disraeli purported to be far more deeply involved with that side of his ancestry than he in fact was, even explaining his active membership in the Church of England as an example of his fealty to “the only Jewish institution that remains… the visible means which embalms the race.”  Meanwhile, the Jewish characters and themes in Disraeli’s novels appall modern sensibilities.  Sidonia, a character in the Young England trilogy (Coningsby, Sybil, and Tancred,) “looks like nothing so much as an anti-Semitic hate figure.  It is amazing, in fact, how Disraeli manages to combine in this one character every malicious slander and paranoid fear that the anti-Semitic imagination can breed.”  Disraeli’s manipulation of the label his fellows had imposed upon him enabled him to become prime minister of the United Kingdom.  Disraeli’s ability to “outline [an] agenda of radical change to be achieved conservatively, a political program that allowed him to reinvent himself as the representative not only of the wealthy and the working class but of the Tory Party, too” has inspired rightist politicians like Richard Nixon and the neocons.      

If Kirsch is right, Disraeli knotted his contemporaries’ perceptions of him around their image of “the Jew,” using their prejudices to transform  himself from a marginal figure unlikely to make a mark in politics into a figure of England’s national mythology.  Another complex of ideas twists around another such image in Brendan O’Neill’s  analysis of the thoughts of some of Israel’s more fervent defenders in the West.  O’Neill argues that the individuals he cites are less interested in Israel as an actual place inhabited by living people than they are in using a particular idea of Israel as a symbol for the values of the Enlightenment.  “In effect, Israel is cynically, and lazily, being turned into a proxy army for a faction in the Western Culture Wars that has lost the ability to defend Enlightenment values on their own terms or even to define and face up to the central problem of anti-Enlightenment tendencies today.”  This use of Israel as a pawn in cultural struggles centered elsewhere shades into philosemitism.  “[A]s Richard S. Levy writes in his book Anti-Semitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution, simple philosemitism, like anti-Semitism, also treats the Jews as ‘radically different or exceptional’…  Where anti-Semites project their frustrations with the world and their naked prejudices onto the Jews, and frequently onto Israel, too, the new philosemites project their desperation for political answers, for some clarity, for a return to Enlightenment values onto Israel and the Jews.  Neither is a burden the Jewish people can, or should be expected to, bear.”    

Jeffrey Hart appreciates his old teacher, Lionel Trilling, comparing him to SA213Edmund Burke.  I suppose if he’d been trying to fit in with the other two pieces I mentioned he could have claimed that it was precisely by playing to a stereotyped image of a Jew as a literary scholar that Trilling gained acceptance as a critic of literature in general, and then gone on to argue that Trilling’s liberal humanism represents a defense of Enlightenment values of a sort that cannot today be mounted directly, only as a reflection on events half a world away.  He might have done that.  He doesn’t, no indeed, but he might have. 

Another image of an unconventional way of being a Jewish man drives Steve Sailer to the point of a homophobic panic attack.  His review of Milk includes these paragraphs:

Most strikingly, if “Milk’s” screenplay weren’t so relentlessly hagiographic, Sean Penn would be on the hot seat over his stereotypical caricaturizing of a homosexual. Penn’s performance is so flamingly effeminate that you have to wonder whether he got Harvey Milk of Castro Street confused with Harvey Fierstein of Broadway.

During television appearances, Milk came across as a calm, moderately masculine presence, with only slight gay mannerisms. In contrast, Penn’s flamboyant act sets your gaydar clanging like the meltdown siren at a nuclear power plant. That’s important, because Penn’s decision to play Milk as utterly unable to pass for straight robs Milk’s story of much of its interest.

Your humble correspondent took it upon himself to suggest to Sailer that he might have missed the point.  In a comment on Sailer’s blog, I wrote:

I don’t agree with you about Sean Penn’s voice. I agree that in the scenes where the Harvey Milk character is in a private setting his voice is stereotypically nancy-boyish, but in the public scenes, especially the first debate about Proposition 6, the same voice is commanding and assured; indeed, masculine.

I’ve made the same point in somewhat greater depth on comment boards here and here.   

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  1. cymast

     /  March 5, 2009

    The whole anti-Semitic thing has always left me completely baffled . .


    So Sailer is offended if homosexual men are portrayed as having effeminate voices in private. Would Sailer be offended if homosexual women were portrayed as having masculine voices in private? How about hetero men sounding masculine? Or hetero women sounding feminine? I’m on the edge of my seat! I guess Milk should’ve played himself in the movie so everybody would know what he sounded like in private. Oh wait . .

  2. acilius

     /  March 5, 2009

    Oh, Sailer’s not offended on behalf of gays. Quite the contrary. He’s trying to shut gay rights advocates up by accusing them of being hypocritical. His point is that if someone who wasn’t making a pro-gay rights statement did what Penn does, gay rights groups would accuse that person of peddling stereotypes. That’s supposed to show that they’re all phonies who only care about their own power, not about justice. Sailer usually goes after people who attack antiblack stereotypes, but it’s by no means unusual for him to target those who attack antigay stereotypes. In fact, Sailer regularly defends stereotyping and claims that we shouldn’t get rid of stereotypes, but improve them by plugging scientific data into them. His review of Milk is part of this ridiculously sinister agenda, but it’s also an unintentional laugh riot- he’s so agitated by the film’s homosexual themes that by his closing paragraph, rather than just praising James Brolin’s portrayal of politician-turned-assassin Dan White, he actually expresses an identification with the killer himself, saying that it’s a huge relief to him to see a “normal” person.

  3. cymast

     /  March 5, 2009

    Jesus. So is my previous homo comment politically correct or not? Christ.

  4. acilius

     /  March 5, 2009


    Sailer is usually very calm and genial, he has a great knack for making his preposterous views seem eminently reasonable. This review is a great example of him losing his cool completely. He gets so worked up it’s hard not to think he’s a closet case himself.

  5. lefalcon

     /  March 7, 2009

    Sailer thinks Penn’s performance plays into a stereotype. But why or how would that, in and of itself, ruin the movie for S?

  6. acilius

     /  March 8, 2009

    He doesn’t actually say that the part he perceives as a stereotype bothers him, he objects to other things about the movie. He just brings up his point about the alleged stereotype so that he can take a swipe at gay rights activists.

  7. cymast

     /  March 29, 2009

    Well now that I’ve seen the movie MILK, I realize there must 2 movies of that name about Harvey Milk, starring Sean Penn.

    “Penn’s performance is so flamingly effeminate . . ”

    Not in the movie I saw. Not at all.

    ” . . scenes where the Harvey Milk character is in a private setting his voice is stereotypically nancy-boyish . . ”

    Again I would say no. It’s normal and expected for people’s voices to vary from situation to situation. Why would Milk or anybody else use the same voice when sharing a private moment with a lover as when addressing a political crowd?

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