Walter Benjamin's is a name to be conjured with in the academic disciplines where "theory" is king. A Jew and a Marxist, he was killed in 1940 while trying to escape Germany, having been rather late in catching on to what the Nazis were up to. Benjamin is not for bedtime reading. There is this, for instance, from Selected Writings: "Far from inaugurating a purer sphere, the mythic manifestation of immediate violence shows itself fundamentally identical with all legal violence, and turns suspicion concerning the latter into certainty of the perniciousness of its historical function, the destruction of which thus becomes obligatory."
Or maybe it is bedtime reading, for insomniacs. Unless one is an insomniac who reads for meaning, in which case one will be up all night. Clive James, the British cultural critic, is less than sympathetic to Benjamin and his influence: "Part of his sad fate has been to have his name bandied about the intellectual world without very many of its inhabitants being quite sure why, apart from the vague idea that he was a literary critic who somehow got beyond literary criticism: he got up into the realm of theory, where critics rank as philosophers if they are hard enough to read. Clever always, he was clear seldom: a handy combination of talents for attaining oracular status. More often mentioned than quoted, he has become a byword for multiplex cultural scope. But the unearned omniscience of postmodernism depends on its facility for connecting things without examining them, and the routine invocation of Benjamin as a precursor is symptomatic." Perhaps so, but just think what "critical theory" would be if its practitioners did read him.
I'm not sure that James is right in thinking that Benjamin's intellectual obfuscations served as a cushion against the reality of anti-Semitism, but he has this interesting observation about that disease: "Born into comfortable surroundings, Benjamin nevertheless concluded at an early age that the Jewish bourgeoisie were kidding themselves about assimilation. The better they did in every field of the arts, science, the professions and commerce, the more they were resented. The more they fitted in the more they stood out. In other words, they were disliked for themselves. Before World War I, Theodore Herzl had drawn the central impulse of Zionism from no other assumption. Victor Klemperer, in To the Bitter End, the 19421945 volume of his monumental diary, noted that a total rejection of assimilation for Jews was the point on which the arch-Nazi Hitler and the arch-Zionist Herzl were of the same mind: les extrêmes se touchent."
As with others of a Marxist bent, Benjamin chose to blame, not the goyim for their prejudice, but the Jewish bourgeoisie for their naivety and, by extension, the bourgeoisie as a class. Zionism, anti-Semitism, and Marxismall confusedly entangled in the shared perception that Jews are and always will be the "other." That is part of the story of the murderous ideologies of the last century. It is not safe to assume that this new century is immune to new configurations of the same.
I see that Vanity Fair is out with a list of the one hundred most powerful people in the world, with the great majority being Americans and about half of them Jews. As with most such lists, it is the product of editorial brainstorming with no evident methodology, and not even a gesture toward a rational definition of powerful. It's the kind of thing that will no doubt feed the fevers of those on the fringe who think America has a "Jewish problem."
As J.J. Goldberg observes in Jewish Power, anti-Semites tend to think that they're on to a dirty little secret. Any informed American knows that Jews, who are about 2 percent of the population, have a disproportionate influence in our society. (NB: Disproportionate, not inordinate, since the latter word suggests there is something wrong with that.) Stacks of books have been written trying to explain Jewish achievement, some of them persuasive and too many suggesting something sinister at work. I expect most Christians today, at least in this country, think it has more than a little to do with their being the chosen people.
America is the great test case of whether Benjamin, Herzl, and sundry anti-Semites are right about the inevitably of Jews being the despised and feared "other." The Reform leaders of Judaism in the nineteenth century who declared that America is "our Zion" no doubt went too far. Not because they loved America too much but because they loved America wrongly, becoming the Jewish equivalents of their fellow citizens who turned "Christian America" into an idol. America is not the culmination of the highest aspiration that God has planted in the human heart. It is not Augustine's City of God, but of temporal orders it is a gift and achievement to be cherished, not least because it is that rare thing in history, a place where Jews and Christians live together in mutual respect and security. If non-Jews are troubled by lists such as the one published by Vanity Fair, the proper response is not resentment but emulation.
That invaluable quarterly, The Human Life Review, has in its current issue an article by James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, about strange doing among exotic varieties of conservatives. "Abortion and the 'Catholic Right'" puts Catholic Right in quotes because, says Hitchcock, it is sometimes hard to distinguish from the far left, both Catholic and other. He focuses on The Wanderer and its breakaway offspring, The Remnant, with particular attention to such writers as Joseph Sobran, Pat Buchanan, Howard Phillips, and Paul Likoudis.
In their virulent detestation of George W. Bush and their condemnation of the Iraq War, these people are, writes Hitchcock, peddling an apocalyptic vision of a capitalist-neoconservative conspiracy that matches the rantings of Marxist and other leftist ideologues. And all this with more than a whiff of the anti-Semitism associated with Fr. Charles Coughlin, whom they frequently extol as a hero. Hitchcock notes that a new "conservative" publishing house has brought out a book attacking neoconservatives and containing essays by Buchanan, Sobran, and Likoudis, along with, of all people, Noam Chomsky. The book carries one endorsement by far-left historian Howard Zinn and another by Richard Williamson of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X, better known as the Lefebvrists.
This is strange bedfellowship on crack. Most pertinent to the mission of Human Life Review, this curious coterie on the "Catholic Right" has largely given up on the question of abortion and related life issues. For those of sufficiently raised consciousness, it is understood that the Republican party is merely using pro-lifers to perpetuate the neocon-capitalist oppression and is as bad as, if not worse than, the Democrats. Weighing the economic and ideological questions against abortion, writes Hitchcock, they come up with their own version of the "seamless garment" argument employed by many liberal Catholics in order to make abortion a nonissue.
And all of this, of course, in defense of "authentic" Catholic social doctrine before it was muddled by the likes of the Second Vatican Council and John Paul II. Howard Zinn and Joe Sobran locked in common cause. Who would have thought it? Answer: Anyone who understands how extreme alienation desperately seeks company, and any company will do. Sociologists might call it the elective affinity of extremisms. Others might call it bizarre.