Posts Tagged ‘Jews’

Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon - tt_c_c190226.tif

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Noah Smith should stick to what he knows best, like translating Paul Romer. Because, on the rest, he seems to be way out of his depth.

Smith wades into the debate about capitalism and racism by asserting that “the idea that the only way that racial minorities will win true freedom is with a revolution that overthrows capitalism. . .is a trap that helps keep minorities down.” He then adopts what he considers to be a “historical perspective,” a story about Jews in Europe—what he considers to be the “model minority” strategy.

what will work? If history is any guide, the only option is to increase tolerance. I don’t pretend to know how to increase tolerance. For immigrant groups, it seems to naturally fade over time, especially if those groups 1) organize to fight discriminatory policy, and 2) make a bunch of money. For African-Americans, intolerance seems much more entrenched. I don’t pretend to know how to get rid of it, but I am pretty sure that a militant overthrow of capitalism would make things much, much worse.

Basically, Smith’s history is that Jews were “regularly attacked and massacred” but then moved to “more tolerant societies” (like the Netherlands and England, and eventually the United States) and then got rich. End of story.

He does admit that some Jews (like Marx and Trotsky) “took a different tack” and sought to move beyond capitalism. But the rest of the history of Jews—whether the mid-twentieth-century holocaust or the legions of socialist, communists, and trade-unionists who fought against capitalism, including in the United States—is simply erased.

And Smith never even attempts to present the history of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities in the United States—beginning with slavery and immigration from Central America to a long if uneven history of poverty, unemployment, prison sentences, and much more in later years.

Perhaps most important, Smith never defines what he means by freedom. What kind of freedom does he have in mind? Sure, Jews have managed to find spaces in which to practice their religion (with, for the most part, less discrimination than they once suffered) and some have managed to become quite wealthy (including, along the way, appropriating the wealth produced by other Jews). But to what extent is that “true freedom”?

What Smith is referring to are particular kinds of freedom—the freedom to practice religion and the freedom to accumulate wealth. Blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities have come to be able to exercise those freedoms, too, albeit to a lesser extent, at least as social groups. (Basically, Smith’s premise is they, too, will be able—eventually—to become Jews.) But those freedoms presuppose the continued existence of religion and of the inequalities inherent to capitalism. They are the freedoms defined by and specific to individuals—self-interested and self-serving individuals. Therefore, they do not represent the freedom from religion or the freedom from exploitation. They are merely the promise that individuals can observe religious practices and occupy a position in the unequal distribution of income and wealth (with a tiny minority at the top and the majority at the increasingly distant bottom)

In that sense, Smith’s freedoms do not promise an end to the kinds of racist inequalities that have long been associated with capitalist exploitation. I’ll admit, getting rid of capitalism will probably not eliminate all forms of racist intolerance. But moving beyond capitalism will certainly take away one important determinant of the way racism has historically played out in the United States.

If and when that happens, everyone will be able to enjoy true freedom.