John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton
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Poet's Corner: Long Sentence

My Advent project having now concluded, it's back to my usual posting habits: lists of ten things on weekdays, poems or other writings on Saturdays, and works of art on Sunday. So let's see, today is Saturday, so that calls for a poem. Actually, an "other writing." The other day, I stumbled across an old column by one of my favorite writers, Michael Kinsley. It originally appeared in the May 8, 1995, edition of The New Republic. It's a little dated, but it's central premise — that Pat Robertson is a figure deserving of ridicule — is as true today as it was ten years ago.

Long Sentence

The controversy continues over whether Pat Robertson's bizarre rantings about the depredations of the Rothschilds and the Warburgs make him an anti-Semite. In a way, this debate has been a useful distraction for Robertson, since it has overshadowed the issue of whether he is a complete nut case. Based on the same evidence, that is a much easier question. Yet, as the leader of the Christian Coalition, he remains the most important person in the most powerful faction within the Republican Party. If this bothers the party's leading lights — let alone its intellectual apologists — they have not said so.

On April 12, The Wall Street Journal editorial page published an apologia by Robertson — titled, "a reply to my critics" — which casts light on both the anti-Semitism and lunacy issues. One sentence in particular caught my eye. Wonderfully mad, it is a self-quote from Robertson's 1990 book, The New Millennium. In other words, Robertson himself has chosen to highlight this sentence as a sample of his thought, and proof that he is not anti-Semitic. The sentence rewards close textual analysis. Here it is: "Intolerance in any quarter is wrong, but inasmuch as we are able, we must ensure that the trend throughout the 1990s remains in favor of a Jewish homeland in Israel and not for the elimination for the Jews."

Thus sayeth the Rev. Pat Robertson.

It is hard to know where to begin to sample this sentence's delights. Perhaps it is best, in the Hebrew manner, to start at the end and move backwards. We immediately face a grammatical problem. It should, of course, be "the elimination of the Jews," not "the elimination for the Jews," which is an oddly arch way of putting it. Elimination would not, on balance, be "for" the Jews. To be sure, one might possibly say, "elimination for the Jews," omitting the first "the," in the sense of, "It's curtains for the Jews" — but this would be a rakish construction, surely inappropriate to the subject under discussion.

This brings us to the nub of the matter. Interpretation is always tricky, but Robertson seems to be suggesting here that he opposes the elimination of the Jews. That is nice, and I believe him. He even opposes a "trend" toward the elimination of the Jews, which is especially comforting. But as evidence of an absence of anti-Semitism, it is a bit lacking in oomph. Does Robertson think that anti-Semitism consists of wishing for the "elimination" of the Jews? This is setting the bar awfully high. Anti-Semitism has, of course, taken that form. But Hitler should not be allowed to spoil anti-Semitism for everyone else. Indeed, the fact that Robertson presents his opposition to the elimination of the Jews as evidence of a lack of anti-Semitism arguably is evidence of the opposite. If someone feels moved to declare, even in a sincere spirit of reassurance, "Look, I really don't want to kill you" — does that demonstrate empathy, or something more sinister? Then there is Robertson's unusual framework of analysis. There are, apparently, only two options for "the trend throughout the 1990s." One is "a Jewish homeland in Israel." The other is "elimination for the Jews." Between these two options, Robertson declares, he prefers a Jewish homeland over elimination of the Jews. This leaves open the question of how he rates a trend toward elimination for the Jews compared with other possible Jewish trends.

What, after all, does he mean by a trend in favor of a Jewish homeland in Israel? There already is a Jewish homeland in Israel. It is not in need of a trend toward it. The concept is nonsense, unless Robertson means a trend toward Israel becoming the Jewish homeland — i.e., a trend toward Jews abandoning other countries and moving to Israel. There is a strain of fundamentalist Christian thought which holds that the second coming will arrive when all the Jews return to the Holy Land, where they will be destroyed in some sort of cataclysm (thus achieving both of Robertson's options simultaneously). Presumably Robertson is not endorsing that particular theory here. But, at the very least, he seems to be adopting the view of certain Zionist extremists that there can be no safe place for Jews outside of Israel — that the options are Israel or "elimination." Such a view may not be anti-Semitic, even when held by a non-Jew, but it is not exactly the Republican party line. (The Republican party line, of course, is that Jews are perfectly safe outside of Israel, so long as they are carrying a concealed semiautomatic weapon.)

Next, in our backward journey through this remarkable sentence, consider the strange qualifying phrase, "inasmuch as we are able." Inasmuch as we are able, says Pat Robertson, we should strive to avoid the elimination of the Jews. He means, of course, insofar as we are able. "Inasmuch as we are able," read literally, would mean that, since we happen to be able to, we might as well avoid the elimination of the Jews. But Robertson clearly is not saying that. He is suggesting that he is not at all sure we will be able to avoid the elimination of the Jews. Do you detect a note of noble resignation — an almost audible sigh — here? There's a sort of implied advance permission to fail, as if success is a hopeless ideal and the effort is what counts. It reminds me of signs that used to be posted, many years ago, in Harrod's Department Store in London: "Please Try Not to Smoke." Do try not to eliminate the Jews, but, well, flesh is weak, and we are all sinners. A body can only do so much.

Consider, finally, the opening clause: "Intolerance in any quarter is wrong, but inasmuch as we are able" we shouldn't eliminate the Jews, etc., etc. Why "but"? Surely conventional logic would suggest that the proper connector between these two thoughts is "and": intolerance is wrong and we shouldn't eliminate the Jews. (Or possibly even "and therefore" we shouldn't, etc. etc.) What concept is Pat Robertson trying to express when he says that intolerance is wrong but we shouldn't eliminate the Jews?

My only thought here is that perhaps Robertson intended this introductory qualification as a pre-emptive strike against critics who might otherwise accuse him of implicitly condoning other forms of intolerance with his fetishistic insistence that we must strive, as much as we are able, to avoid the elimination of the Jews. As a believer in the true meaning of civil rights — before it was corrupted by civil rights activists — one must be careful not to seem to be endorsing special treatment for any race, creed or color. We must strive toward ensuring that trends run against the elimination of all ethnic groups equally. Of course this equality must be of opportunity, and not of result. Every ethnic group must have an equal opportunity not to be eliminated. Whether they make the most of this opportunity is up to them.

Or something like that.

Michael Kinsley (b. 1951)
Copyright 1995, The New Republic

Tags: poet's corner
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