Posts Tagged 'british politics'

Epshtine, Bernsteen, Volfervitz.

As I write this, the results of the British election are rolling in. The question of Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged antisemitism will soon be falling off the front pages and down into the depths of the international section, where the two-paragraph dispatches from Burma and Bougainville languish unread.

Having paid little attention to the campaign, it was only today that I learned of one of the more trivial flurries of indignation stirred up by Corbyn’s clumsiness. In the leaders’ debate, when asked about Prince Andrew’s friendship with the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Corbyn pronounced his name as “Epshtine” – in order, claimed his critics, “to emphasise the fact Epstein was Jewish”. To quote a Twitter user named Catherine Lenson:

I’ve seen people call it a microaggression. But this is no microaggression. This is a deliberate provocation. This [is] a man showing his truest colours. It’s taunting. This is racism, pure and simple. And we see it.

I make no claims to knowing what is in Corbyn’s mind. But I’m inclined to judge his gaffe forgivingly, as I do the unnamed BBC interviewers accused by Christopher Hitchens (in his memoir Hitch-22) of microaggressing against his friend Paul Wolfowitz – or, as the name came out after they’d put their “sinister top-spin” on it, “Volfervitz”:

How hard could it be, I would inquire icily … to pronounce the name phonetically or as it was spelled? “Oh all right,” one of them said grudgingly: “this fellow Wolfervitz who seems to be the power behind the scenes, with his neo-con cabal…” I made him stop and begin all over again.

I’ve referred to this anecdote before. As I wrote then:

This might have been, as Hitchens believed, a “clumsy innuendo” on Wolfowitz’s Jewishness; or it might merely have been a misplaced straining for cultural sensitivity. (Compare for instance the German-born composer Kurt Weill who, after moving to the States, was annoyed by Americans who took the trouble to pronounce his name in the German fashion rather than, as he preferred, anglicizing it to “Curt While”.)

That’s from my June essay on Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who was frequently irritated when people, including President Kennedy, referred to him as “Diefenbawker”. Most of these incidents were innocent mistakes; some of them, in the earlier part of his career when the war was fresh in people’s minds, may have been deliberate attempts to draw attention to Dief’s German background.

Diefenbaker was in turn accused by the journalist Peter C. Newman, whom he detested for reporting critically about his government, of antisemitically mispronouncing his name as “Kneeman” or “Noyman”. Newman claimed that Dief would go further in private and refer to him outright as “that Viennese Jew”. I can’t find any independent source for these claims; they certainly contradict Dief’s carefully cultivated reputation as a combatter of racial prejudice.

Catherine Lenson, in the Twitter thread linked above, links to an old William Safire column that lists the composer Leonard Bernstein among the famous Jews who pronounced their last name steen. But Safire was mistaken – as I knew already. [1] When I heard of the “Epshtine” flap, I immediately thought of Radical Chic, Tom Wolfe’s hilarious account of a 1970 cocktail party hosted by Bernstein and his wife to raise funds for the Black Panthers. Bernstein was known for boisterously correcting anyone who got his name wrong, for instance when the Panthers’ lawyer rose to thank “Mrs. Bernsteen” for her hospitality:

“STEIN!”–a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! … For years, twenty at the least, Lenny has insisted on -stein not -steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation.

Re-reading Radical Chic reminds us that Corbyn isn’t the first leftist to be stymied by the impossibility of reconciling the interests of well-to-do Jewish liberals on one side and angry proletarians on the other. Wolfe depicts the Bernsteins’ elite set nodding along as Black Panther “Field Marshal” Don Cox declares the United States to be “the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world”. But there are stirrings of unease when Cox refers to the “donations” his party receives from “exploiters of the black community”, i.e., small business owners:

For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man–don’t bring out that ball-breaker–

The film director Otto Preminger pipes up with some impertinent questions about Israel, which the Panther delegation would prefer to avoid discussing. Later, when the New York Times prints an article about the soirée (a term Bernstein resents; it was merely a “meeting”, he says) which quotes the composer replying “I dig it!” to some of his guests’ more uncompromising assertions, the backlash from his fellow Jews is so disconcerting that he is forced to issue a public statement clarifying his position. While he supports the Panthers’ right to freedom of speech and assembly, Bernstein explains,

it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.

Bernstein stumbled trying to negotiate what Wolfe called “the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic”. But Bernstein had to go well out of his way to make such an ass of himself. Fifty years later, we all live permanently in that electrified realm, risking a shock every time we utter an unfamiliar name. Which is the safer bet: stein (which looks like you’re drawing attention to the name’s Jewishness) or steen (which would imply that the anglicized version is somehow normative)? Either way you run the risk of being accused of “othering” someone.

My suspicion is that the people who say “Volfervitz” or “Epshtine” or for that matter “Bern-STEIN!” are the same ones who go overboard on the pronunciation of foreign place names like Budapesht and Ibeetha and Lesootoo, refer to Iranians as Ee-rawn-ians, and correct you if you refer to Bombay or Canton. [2] In Kingsley Amis’s unforgettable formulation, these people would be overly pedantic “wankers”, as distinguished from “berks” who mispronounce things out of ignorance. I’m attentive to this division because I have to work hard to suppress my own wankerish tendencies.

Incidentally, until learning about the “Epshtine” controversy today, I had no idea whether Epstein was a steener or a steiner. Going by Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and demeanour, I suspect that he, like me, gets most of his news from printed matter rather than from TV or online videos; it’s possible therefore that when he first saw Epstein’s name he wankerishly defaulted to the more foreign-sounding, ergo “authentic” pronunciation, and his flunkies never bothered to correct him.

M.

1. You can put your trust in Michael Stipe.

2. A friend reports that she was told by an Australian expatriate that the “correct” pronunciation of Melbourne is “Melbin”. I guess we Canadians could begin insisting on “Tronna”, but we’re too polite. We’re happy when someone gets Saskatchewan more or less right.

A couple months back I shrugged at the results of the Canadian election. Last year in a post on immigration I referred to an Anti-Defamation League study on the global distribution of antisemitic beliefs. Way back in 2009 I discussed Jewish overrepresentation in Hollywood.

 

Brexit: Diff’rent yokes for diff’rent folks.

As a Canadian, I can’t say I was terribly invested in the question of whether the United Kingdom should or shouldn’t leave the European Union. I suppose my slight preference was for a Leave vote, just as my slight preference in the 2014 Scottish referendum was for independence, just as I was pretty sanguine about the prospect of Quebec’s departure during that province’s referendum campaign way back in 1995. I have a sentimental streak of small-is-beautiful conservatism which, if I were English, might lead people to dismiss me as a Little Englander. I’m not altogether clear on why that’s considered a slur.

Up until a few years ago – say, 2007 – I never really questioned the value of EU membership for Britain. The great convenience of free trade and travel around the continent more than compensated, I would have said, for the pin-pricking of petty rules dreamed up by bureaucrats in Brussels.

Then the subprime mortgage crisis happened, leading in 2010 to the Greek debt perma-crisis, now entering its seventh year. Don’t ask me to explain how a real estate bubble in the United States led to the near-default of Greece, threatening to tank the entire European economy. I’m sure you’re a diligent reader of the financial news and you can explain how it’s all the fault of a) hyperregulatory welfare statism or b) the machinations of predatory bankers (pick one).

I’m not a particularly intelligent person, but neither am I outrageously dumb. Let’s say I’m at the 50th percentile, IQ-wise. And while I’m not as well-informed as I know I should be, I do make some effort to keep abreast of the news. If it helps you to place my level of financial literacy, I read the book version of The Big Short a few years before the movie came out – in other words, I’m able to follow business reportage at an airport-bookstore level – putting me, once again, at let’s say the 50th percentile. And after reading nearly a decade of argumentation about the causes of the economic clusterhump we’re still crawling our way out of, I still have no goddamned clue what happened. And about half the population has less of a clue than I have.

That’s ultimately why I’m wary of the EU, and NAFTA, and the WTO, and any other arrangement that erodes national sovereignty. It’s not that I think Greece, or Quebec, or the UK are any less likely on their own to blindly drive into the quicksand than they would be as provinces of a vast multiethnic empire. But as long as national borders exist, national catastrophes are to some degree localized. The effects are concentrated among people with the same cultural values, speaking the same language, using the same currency. Which means it might be possible, barely, for humans of limited intellect to wrap their heads around the causes of the catastrophe and take steps to contain it. And for the equally slow-witted citizens of nearby countries to learn from their neighbours’ errors before the same catastrophe overwhelms them.

If you have libertarian or neo-liberal or internationalist leanings you’re probably rolling your eyes at this retrograde stuff. Computers, the internet, global satellite communications – these things, you say, can’t be un-invented. We’re stuck in this borderless, speed-of-light reality, like it or no. The best thing is to set up a system of supra-national governance where the world’s brightest minds will be empowered to head off crises before they happen.

I guess it’s a matter of outlook. Down here at the 50th percentile I don’t have much confidence that the bright minds at the 99th percentile are as competent to foresee crises as they seem to think they are. In fact, reviewing the history of the last decade and a half or so, what I see is a succession of crises caused or at least exacerbated by the reckless utopianism of 99th-percentile types. The reckless utopians of the so-called right who were confident they could “drain the swamp” of Middle Eastern medievalism. And the reckless utopians of the so-called left who thought the symbolic importance of a common currency outweighed the dangers of duct-taping together a group of incongruous European economies.

It’s true that voters are at least partially to blame for elevating their leaders to positions where they could do such damage. But it’s one thing to elect a nitwit who near wrecks your own country. The most frustrating thing in the world must be to find yourself under the yoke of some nitwit you never even voted for, whom you believe – fairly or not – to be wrecking your country from the outside.

I’ve never really experienced that. But I can imagine how it must have felt for Scots who were powerless to thwart Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, or Quebecers offended by Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional swashbuckling, or Brits waking up one day to discover that Angela Merkel had unilaterally abrogated the rules governing asylum seekers in Europe.

Utopianism is the belief that for any problem there is one right, perfect, universal solution which, once it’s imposed, will quiet all critics and bring about perfect contentment forever. A more modest problem-solver says no, in fact, there are any number of potential solutions, each of them involving tradeoffs that will be more satisfactory to some groups, less so to others. Dissatisfied groups cluster together to air their grievances and wind up forming communities with shared values and assumptions. This has been happening for as long as humans have existed – in fact, it’s why there are different countries. It follows that different solutions are likely to be more satisfactory for some countries than for others. Why not, therefore, let different countries solve their problems in their own different ways?

M.

 


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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