Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Can Anti-Semites Be Great Men?

The issue started when Republican Mitt Romney chose a museum honoring Henry Ford as the site to announce his presidential candidacy. In a move oddly reminiscent of CAIR, The National Jewish Democratic Council criticized Romney's choice of venue because of Ford's history of anti-Semitism.

In response to readers that Henry Ford was a great American even while he was still an anti-Semite, Jonah Goldberg responds:
Sorry, I'm not sold. If you mean by "great" the Thomas Carlyle, "great man of history" great, I think that's perfectly defensible. But when I use the phrase "great American" I mean it as a compliment. There are lots of "great men" I would never want to emulate. There are few great Americans I wouldn't want to emulate.

For the record, I don't hold the view that anti-Semitism automatically disqualifies historical figures from being great Americans — though I would like to think it doesn't help. But there is an issue of degree here. Slavery was a moral horror, but Jefferson was typical of his age and we don't need to get into one of those long arguments about whether slavery disqualifies the founders from our admiration to understand the issues involved. Meanwhile, sure anti-Semitism was prevalent, or more prevalent, in Ford's day but Ford was a real outlier. He was among the chief distributors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other anti-Semitic theories. While Jefferson is by no means my favorite founding father, I would think a lot less of him if I were to learn that he was a gung-ho booster of slavery and an outright advocate of cruelty to slaves. Similarly, it doesn't bother me too much when I hear the stray off-putting comment about Jews from, say, a Teddy Roosevelt because there's a social and historical context to keep in mind. But Henry Ford really went out of his way to demonize Jews. I think that disqualifies him as a great American — again, in my book. But I certainly understand why others may disagree. It's not like I lose a lot of sleep over my rage at Henry Ford. Nor will I pace the floor swearing vengeance at Romney for announcing his presidential bid at Henry Ford's pad or wherever that was.
Though the context is anti-Semitism, any racial prejudice would be equally abhorrent and would similarly diminish the stature of a person--regardless of their status and accomplishments, which I assume is what Goldberg is referring to by the term "great man of history". It is that aspect of Henry Ford that Romney is connecting to.

It is also that aspect of Henry Ford that Bill Clinton was referring to--without backlash--back in 1999 when he said:
Here in Detroit nearly a century ago, as all of you know better than me, Henry Ford set history in motion with the very first assembly line. He built not only a Model T, but a new model for the way America would do business for quite a longwhile. He said he was looking for leaders and thinkers and workers with "an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done." People like that came together in Detroit and all across America. They forged America's transition from farm to factory. Detroit led the way and America led the world. [Hat tip: John J. Miller]
Part of the problem may be that Ford's darker side may not be widely taught and is not as deeply embedded in the American consciousness. As Jews, we tend to remember such details--and there is no reason we should keep them to ourselves--but using them as political fodder deprives them of educational value.

In Goldberg's description, he draws a distinction between men who are great because they have done great things and men who have achieved stature and greatness that is worthy of emulation. Ford would be an example of the former--nothing can detract from his achievements and what they meant to America's place in the world. The latter has a certain moral element to it--Jefferson as a leader falls into that category, even while his association with slavery diminishes his stature.

Richard Wagner, who was an anti-Semite, is a controversial figure in both Germany and Israel--but it would be difficult to say that his achievement itself, his music, is diminished thereby. For all the romanticized view of music as a reflection of one's soul, music--despite its beauty--is amoral: it can make a statement and inspire, just as art and good writing can, but it does not have a particular moral value to it and does not necessarily indicate anything about the person who created it.

Goldberg sets up a dispensation based on the prevailing attitude of the time, which is why he faults Ford for going beyond the pale in actively disseminating anti-Semitic literature such as the Protocols. Wagner, for his part, published his opinions on Jews. Jefferson, however, apparently did not advocate slavery--even while he personally endorsed it. Goldberg may be justified in granting a certain 'allowance' for greatness in the face of the prevalent views of the times, but a certain amount of mediocrity should attach itself to such a person. Surely a great man, a man of stature, would be able to transcend the prejudices of the time just as he transcends in the expectations of his time.

Bottom line, Henry Ford is honored and respected as a symbol of what can be accomplished and what he contributed to American's place in the world, even while he himself is not a model of how one should live their life to accomplish it.

Of course anti-Semites cannot be Great Men--no more than any other kind of racist--but we should keep in mind what a Great Man is and why we want to be one in the first place.

Technorati Tag: and and .

No comments: