Skin and Discourse
by E. Michael Jones
I have never owned a television. In the over 34 years that I have been married, we had one once. It came as part of the furnished apartment we rented in Germany and was kept and watched as an aid to learning the language of the natives. To say that I watched the premiere of Skin, the new TV series which was produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and was being touted as the best new show of the season, means that in a culture like this, the instruments of communication are so powerful that you cannot not know certain things. What other people watch is one of these things; what we are supposed to think about them is another.
Skin was portrayed in the previews and in subsequent reviews as one more attempt on the part of Hollywood to push the envelope on TV obscenity. Skin describes the conflict between a pornographer and Los Angeles District Attorney. The show's premise allows for state of the art transgression of the TV code on nudity. If people tuned in for nudity, however, I suspect they were disappointed. There was no T and no A, just lots of young ladies in bikins hanging on to poles and writhing and gyrating to generic rock music. A much-hyped scene where the porn distributor has the young ladies demonstrate their product to prospective cable company buyers involved lots of underwear falling from the ceiling and little else.
The really interesting part of the show was not the skin; it was the ethnicity. The DA is an Irish Catholic; the pornographer is Jewish. Their children make the ethnic angle clear on their first date. "I'm half Irish, half Mexican, but all Catholic," says the boy who is the DA's son. The girl for her part makes it clear that she comes from a family of secular Jews, but Jews nonetheles; there is no ambiguity about her ethnic identity.
The two children complain about their parents, injecting a large dose of moral relativism into the show. Both children have issues with their parents. The Jewish girl wishes her dad didn't make porno films, but the Catholic boy also wishes that his father wasn't the crusading DA. A pox on both of your houses, seems appropriate here, since the script writers have appropriated the story line from Romeo and Juliet, but the relativism is -- at this point, at least -- inescapable. From the kids' perspective, being a crusading DA who is against pornography is just as bad as being a producer of porn.
On this point, the Hollywood script writers attempt to evade the implications of their own ethnically charged story because what we are dealing with here is one of the oldest and most perduring cultural fault lines in American history, the Catholic/Jewish battle over who determines the country's sexual morality. The fact that we're talking about an ethnic fault line here means that this is not a generation gap issue here. Catholic kids agree with Catholic parents on certain issues, and Jewish kids do the same. That is what ethnicity is all about. There is, quite simply, no generation gap when it comes to abortion or pornography. There is only ethnic continuity, and a large chasm between Catholics and Jews which has perdured for going on an entire century now.
But let's give credit where credit is due. Jerry Bruckheimer is either honest enough or clever enough to know that reality is what drives TV. This is so because reality drives all art, even abstract art like music. If there is no recognition of reality -- emotional reality, in the case of music -- then there is no interest. Hollywood is known to trim reality to ideology on a regular basis -- think of movies like GI Jane -- but they invariably lose money when they do. A TV series like Skin demonstrates that even the love of money can have its bright side, while still remaining the root of all evil.
This is not to say that moral clarity follows from ethnic realism. It does not. The porn industry is sanitized by juxtaposing it with child pornography. The real issue in the Skin pilot is whether the Jewish pornographer is involved in child pornography, and his moral bona fides, at least in terms of Hollywood morality, is quickly established by his rage at one of his subordinates, who has inadvertently allowed some of his sites to be used by child pornographers. The Jewish pornographer is a family man, too. He doesn't want his family name besmirched. He is sensitive to what his daughter thinks of him.
Moral unreality, at this point, gives way to ethnic reality. Jews have been major players in the obscenity trade ever since they arrived on these shores, and before that, they engaged in the same sort of trade in Poland and in the Pale of the Settlement in Russia. The ethnic premise for Skin, in this regard, could have been taken from Jay Gertzmann's book, Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940:
The ethnic flavor of prewar erotica distribution is still with us, although, except for extreme right-wing hate groups, critics of sexual explicitness do not overly exploit the fact. Many distributors of erotica are Jewish, even though very few sons and daughters of the people whose careers are surveyed here have adopted their parents' careers.
Gertzmann is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but his uncle was arrested in Philadelphia in the '50s for trafficking in obscene material. The ethnic connection, as I have said before, goes a long way in explaining how the Jewish pornographer in Skin can think of himself as a family man, in spite of the way he earns a living. That's part of what makes the show interesting, but, by the same token, it's fairly easy to see where the show is going. The Jewish pornographer implies that anyone who is interested in prosecuting porn must have a secret obsession for it. The Catholic DA is being set up for it. We can imagine what will be downloaded from his computer in future episodes. In terms of morality, in other words, it's easy to see which ethnic group's view of reality is going to come out on top. That's one of the perks of being in charge of the most powerful media machine in the history of the universe. The owners get to dictate the outcomes: who wins and who loses in the ongoing saga of transvaluing all values that has become our culture wars.
But, as I said, let's give credit where credit is due. Skin deals with reality, if not moral reality then certainly ethnic reality. One of the major fronts during the 20th century culture wars was the battle between Jews and Catholics over obscenity. I've already written about the Legion of Decency. In fact, I wrote about it in the May issue of Culture Wars in the context of Jews and pornography. The facts in the case are fairly straightforward when it comes to the story of obscenity in America: Jews promoted obscenity; Catholics fought it. Jerry Bruckheimer is to be commended for dealing with the facts. There is more ethnic reality in Skin than in all of Reality TV combined.
But that leads to further questions. Television vies with sessions of the Modern Language Association as the most politically correct speech on the planet. That must mean then that it is now permissible to talk about Jewish involvement in pornography. Right? The answer to that question is "no," as I found out in the expensive school of experience. The people from Touchstone who disinvited me from speaking at their conference never gave a reason -- publicly, that is -- for my disinvitation. Privately -- which is to say, behind my back -- they would claim in response to queries from concerned readers that the reason behind my disinvitation was the May issue of Culture Wars, the issue on Rabbi Dresner's Dilemma over Jews and Pornography. That means that I was punished for making the same statement that is now making Jerry Bruckheimer rich.
AHEAD OF MY TIME
But perhaps I was just six months ahead of my time. Has the situation changed? Does the appearance of Skin as the big new TV series of the 2003-4 season mean that it is now culturally acceptable to talk about Jewish involvement in pornography? Does the existence of Skin on the most heavily censored medium in America mean that the taboo on talking about ethnicity in public has been lifted? If not, does that mean that Jerry Bruckheimer would not be invited to speak at a Touchstone conference because he was an anti-Semite? Or, more to the point, does that mean that Touchstone would turn down his money if he offered it to them?
Questions proliferate the more we ask them. How can Jerry Bruckheimer get away portraying a Jew as a pornographer, a Negro as a drug dealer (Breaking with a longstanding Hollywood precedent, not one Negro in Skin was portrayed sitting in front of a computer screen.) on the most politically correct medium in the world, while I can't say similar things without being punished? I could, of course, say the same thing about my article on Rabbi Dresner in the May issue of Culture Wars. Rabbi Dresner was upset about Jewish involvement in obscenity and said so in his book Can Families Survive in Pagan America. But Rabbi Dresner was not Jerry Bruckheimer, and a small publishing house in Louisiana is not the Fox TV network. The same is true of Luke Ford, a Jew who has similar things to say about Jewish involvement in porn. He said what he had to say on his (now defunct) website, and websites are not primetime TV. Is it permissible to say things now that were impermissible six months ago? Many Jews wrote to me with their views on the article. None of them claimed that it was anti-Semitic, for to make the claim they would have to claim that Rabbi Dresner was anti-Semitic. Hence, Touchstone's (at least public) silence on the matter. One Jewish woman wrote to me after reading the article claiming that no Jew should be expected to defend Jews who engage in this sort of activity.
So have things changed or not?
Things have not changed, but we need to make a number of further distinctions before we can explain why.
The simplest way to dispel the whole issue of what is and is not permissible speech would be to come up with a set of rules or, alternatively, an objective description of anti-Semitism, followed by a list of statements which all men of good will could construe as anti-Semitic. That would solve the problem, but within 48 hours of the premiere of Skin there were enough counter-incidents to indictate this is not going to happen.
For example, on the day of the premiere, Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at The New Republic, the same New Republic that ran Daniel Goldhagen's diatribe against Pius XII, wrote a review attacking Quentin Tarantino's new film Kill Bill for its gratuitous portrayal of violence. He went on to critcize the heads of Disney and Miramax for producing the film, saying that they as Jews should have been more sensitive to the issue of violence, since Jews had been on the receiving end of so much violence, i.e., the Holocaust, during the 20th century. "Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner," Easterbrook wrote,
is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice. But history is hardly the only concern. Films made in Hollywood are now shown all over the world, to audiences that may not understand the dialogue or even look at the subtitles, but can't possibly miss the message -- now Disney's message -- that hearing the screams of the innocent is a really fun way to express yourself.
Within 20 minutes, Easterbrook wrote, the "entire world" had read his review. Pressure was brought to bear and, predictably, he caved in to the pressure, but not before trying to explain what he really meant It seems that he had criticized Mel Gibson a few days earlier for glorifying violence in his films too. He criticized Gibson as a Christian, and that led him to believe that he could, therefore, criticize Harvey Weinstein as a Jew. It only took a few minutes before Easterbrook realized he was wrong, or, if not wrong, then guilty of counterrevolutionary deviationism or something. Easterbrook came to see (How could he have not seen this at the time?) his error only with the benefit of hindsight. He came to understand, in other words, that "accusing a Christian of adoring money above all else does not engage any history of ugly stereotypes. Accuse a Jewish person of this and you invoke a thousand years of stereotypes about that which Jews have specific historical reasons to fear. What I wrote here was simply wrong, and for being wrong, I apologize." In other words, it is wrong to accuse Jews of "adoring money" but not wrong to accuse Christians of the same sort of behavior. Rarely has a double standard been stated and justified so unblushingly. Well, is "adoring money" wrong or not? Or is it only wrong when Christians do it?
But suppose there is some basis in reality for the stereotypes, as there is in Skin? What then? If Gregg Easterbrook is guilty of purveying stereotypes, why isn't Jerry Bruckheimer guilty of the same thing? According to Bernard Weinraub's article on the incident in the New York Times, Matthew Hiltzik, a Miramax spokesman, said, "It is sad that these terrible stereotypes persist and that these comments are receiving a wider platform." But isn't Jerry Bruckheimer giving a wider platform to even worse stereotypes, namely, the Jew as pornographer?
The tyro at politically correct ethnic speak might draw the wrong conclusions at this point. He might conclude that purveying ethnic stereotypes is acceptable as long as it remains an intraethnic affair. So Irishmen can accuse other Irish of being drunks, but only Jews can talk about Jewish involvement in pornography. That is certainly what Rabbi Dresner was doing; it seems to be what Jerry Bruckheimer is doing. That means, of course, that the objective truth of the situation is irrelevant. There is, in other words, no way of judging a statement as anti-Semitic simply according to the face value of the statement. Abe Foxman, in other words, could refer to Jews in the language that Hitler used in Mein Kampf without incurring the taint of anti-Semitism.
But this argument breaks down before long as well. Within 24 hours of the premier of Skin, Mahathir Mohammed, prime minister of Malaysia, announced that "The Jews rule the world by proxy. They get others to fight and die for them." General William G. "Jerry" Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence at the Pentagon said pretty much the same thing in a speech at Good Shepherd Church in Sandy, Oregon. Like the prime minister of Malaysia, Boykin was denounced for saying that Muslims were evil, but he was not denounced for saying essentially what Prime Minister Mahathir said, namely, that the Jews are getting America to fight their battles. During that speech, he talked about Christians receiving their religion from the Jews; he talked about America having a special relationship with Israel, a relationship that involved military support, even to the point of invading other countries, as the United States had done in Iraq. In other words, Boykin said virtually the same thing that Mahathir did and was not denounced, whereas Mahathir was accused of making "an absolute invitation for more hate crimes and terrorism against Jews."
Henry Makow, a Jew whose article on the film Chicago appeared in the May issue of Culture Wars, felt that Mahathir's speech "opposed terrorism." Does that mean that what Mahathir said was not anti-Semitic? The answer is no. But to understand why, we have to understand the difference between a Jews like Henry Makow and a Jew like Abe Foxman.
Another Jew, who agreed with Makow that Mahathir wasn't a terrorist, had something similar to say. Elias Davidson, a native of Jerusalem, feels that Jews do rule the world by proxy. He goes on to explain how:
As a Jew myself (but opposed to Zionism) I need no encouragement from Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamad to observe what should be obvious to the blatant eye: Namely that Jews effectively rule US foreign policy and thus determine to a great extent the conduct of most countries.... So it is with the proposition that Jews control the world. Surely they do not control every single action; surely it does not mean that every Jew participates in the "control." But for all practical purposes the proposition holds.
What distinguishes a Jew like Davidson from a Jew like, say, Stanley Fish is obviously not his ethnicity. It is not even his politics. What distinguishes them is their divergent forms of literary criticism. Davidson believes in the objectivity of statements. He holds the Malaysian Prime Minister to what he actually said and, as a result, finds nothing anti-Semitic in his statement. "Mahathir," Davidson continues,
has neither asked to discriminate against Jews, let alone to kill Jews. It is shameful to equate him to the Hitlerites. He urges Muslims to fight Jews by adopting modern methods, technology and educate themselves, in other words to surpass Jews in excellence. What's wrong with that? By this he is doing service to the Muslims (over 1 Billion people) and to humanity. Jews must know their place and content themselves with influence derived from their small number. jews must learn some humility....
Which brings us back to Stanley Fish and his revolutionary friends. In order to understand why some people can say some things and others cannot say the same things without being accused of being bad people, we have to understand the revolution in literary criticism which took place during the 1970s. According to Fish, there is no objective truth to any statement. The only "truth" (a word he would not use) which a statement possesses is what the reader or listener assigns to it. Does that mean that I (a lonely graduate student at the time he was my teacher) get to determine meaning, I asked during my class with him in the '70s. No, Fish replied, meaning is determined by "interpretive communities." Does that mean, I continued, things like the English department at Temple University, where I was studying at the time? No, it meant elite institutions like Johns Hopkins, where Fish was teaching at the time. And how can we tell whether a university is an elite institution? Well, if Stanley Fish is teaching there. That means that, in short order, first Duke University and then the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle became elite institutions. What Stanley Fish really meant to say is that the interpretive rabbis have complete hegemony over the Torah and any other text.
And why does Professor Fish feel this way? Because he grew up in post-World War II America during a period in which the rabbis from Hollywood and Madison Avenue began to exercise more and more draconian control over discourse of every sort. Fish is a sophist, and like all sophists he recognizes power when he sees it.
So to bring us back to our project of deciphering the real code behind politically corect ethnic speech, it does no good to argue that what you are saying is not anti-Semitic; it does no good to quote another Jew who has made exactly the same claim you are making, because the people who are in the business of running discourse do not believe in the objective truth of any statement. Like Thrasymachus, as described by Plato, they believe that what we call "truth" is really the opinion of the powerful. Truth is what the powerful want.
In terms of contemporary discourse, this means that there is no objective thing that can be defined as anti-Semitism. Hence, there is no possible way to avoid the accusation. Anti-Semitism is, like one version of beauty, something that is in the eye of the beholder, if the beholder happens to be not just a Jew -- Dresner, Makow, and Davidson are all Jews -- but a powerful Jew. Someone like Jerry Bruckheimer, for example, can talk about Jews and pornography in a way that Rabbi Dresner -- and most certainly Mike Jones -- cannot.
This view comes very close to the Talmudic understanding of textual analysis propounded by Stanley Fish. According to Fish there is no text. There are only interpretations. Fish introduced this hermeneutic during the '70s, when he was involved in leading an insurrection against the New Criticism, a critical theory that confined itself to rigorous readings of the text to the exclusion of "Catholic" references to tradition (i.e., history and biography) and was essentially Protestant in its orientation. During the '50s, the New Criticism had assumed a position of hegemony in English departments across the country. Just as the New Criticism was an updated version of the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura, so Fish's Reader Response criticism was an updated version of Talmudic scholarship. According to Fish, there was no Torah; there was only Talmud. The Talmud, the interpretation, had complete hegemony ove rthe Torah, or text. The Talmud permitted what the Torah forbade. Just as the text was supreme in the New Criticism version of sola scriptura, the Rabbi/Interpreter was supreme in Fish's reader response theory. Truth was what the rabbi said it was. Fish was resurrecting what Paul Johnson called, in his history of the Jews, the cathedocracy.
Kevin MacDonald said something similar in his book The Culture of Critique:
[A] fundamental aspect of Jewish intellectual history has been the realization that there is really no demonstrable difference between truth and consensus. Within traditional Jewish religious discourse "truth" was the prerogative of a privileged interpretive elite that in traditional societies consisted of the scholarly class within the Jewish community. Within this community, "truth" and "reality" were nothing more (and were undoubtedly perceived as nothing more) than consensus within a sufficiently large portion of the interpretive community.
Fish's Reader Response Criticism and the subsequent revolutionary takeover of the Modern Language Association were simultaneous manifestations of the triumph of "Jewish religious ideology" in American cultural life. "Jewish religious ideology," according to MacDonald,
was an infinitely plastic set of propositions that could rationalize and interpret any event in a manner compatible with serving the interests of the community [in this instance, the "interpretive community" as brokered by Stanley Fish]. Authority within the Jewish intellectual community was always understood to be based entirely on what recognized...scholars had said. It never occurred to the members of this discourse community to seek confirmation of their views from outside the community of intellectual discourse itself, either from other (gentile) discourse communities or by trying to understand the nature of reality itself. Reality was whatever the group decided it should be, and any dissent from this socially constructed reality would have to be performed within a narrow intellectual space that would not endanger the overall goals of the group (p. 234).
This is not to say that all Jews agreed with the Rabbis then (Spinoza certainly did not) or with Stanley Fish now. On the other hand, Reader Response Criticism, like Bolshevism and Neoconservatism, is a quintessentially Jewish theory. It is full of self-contradictions (which I exposed in my first published article, in College English in 1979), but it was taken seriously nonetheless because of the enormous influence that Jews like Fish had had on American culture in the years following World War II. Fish was espousing the hermeneutics of Thrasymachus as practiced by medieval Rabbis, the source of all power and interpretation when it came to texts in their community.
So, to explicate the theory in light of recent events, General Boykin said essentially what Prime Minister Mahathir said, in a much more specific fashion, when he claimed that America had a special relationship with Israel and that part of that relationship meant using US troops to defend Israel's interests, but he did not get in trouble for saying it because General Boykin is a Christian Zionist of the sort we have discussed at length in these pages, and the people controlling America's foreign policy need Christian Zionist votes.
THE LESSON FROM SKIN
The lesson to be drawn from Skin is simple: the offensiveness of the statement depends upon the power of the person who makes it. Jerry Bruckheimer can say that Jews are involved in pornography, but Mike Jones cannot. Two men can make essentially the same statement, but only the man who lacks political or (what is the same thing) financial power will get into trouble for making the statement. In a world governed by sophists, Thrasymachus will always have the last word when it comes to defining truth. Truth is the opinion of the powerful. The powerful cannot get into trouble for anything they say. The fact that certain people do get into trouble for what they say is simply an indication that they are not that powerful, or on their way down, probably because they offended someone with real power. Rush Limbaugh, who was discovered to have a drug problem shortly after making an insensitive remark about the race of Philadelphia's quarterback, seems to be a case in port.
Mel Gibson is another case in point. Why is Mel Gibson being portrayed as an anti-Semite by the Anti-Defamation League, when just about everyone -- Jews and Gentile alike -- who has seen his film on the last hours of Christ says that it isn't anti-Semitic in the least? The simplest answer to the question is that the objective statements in the movie have nothing to do with the charge being leveled. The imputation of anti-Semitism is taken seriously not because of anything in se but because of the power of the man leveling the charge. Abe Foxman is powerful. Truth, as Thrasymachus said, is the opinion of the powerful. Hence, Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, no matter how many Jews or Christians he gets to see his movie.
There are other answers to the same question. It is true that the Jews who don't want the film shown consider the gospels it portrays anti-Semitic, but the real answer to how the demonization of Mel Gibson and, by extension, Jesus Christ can take place is that the powerful, according to the real, not exoteric, laws of discourse, determine the truth of any statement. According to Fish's essentially Talmudic hermeneutic, Abe Foxman is right because he is powerful, not because he can back up his assertion which any evidence from the text, in this case, Gibson's film. Powerful people don't need evidence because "truth" is simply the opinion of the powerful anyway, and opinions don't need proof.
The corollary to this truth can be seen in Skin. Hollywood is the ultimate arbiter of what is true and good -- not because it has a true understanding of those transcendentals but because it is powerful. That means that no one else is allowed to have any other interpretation because no one else has their power. That means, according to the hermeneutic imposed on us by the revolutionary movement known as Hollywood, that The Last Temptation of Christ is an acceptable reading of the Gospels, whereas Mel Gibson's movie is not. And why? Why did Last Temptation find a distributor and Gibson's Passion (as of this writing) has not? Is it because Last Temptation is more congruent with the blasphemies of the Talmud, which claims that Christ was the bastard offspring (Kallah 51A) of a whore and a Roman soldier (Sanhedrin 106A) and that Christ now resides in boiling excrement in hell (Gittin 57A)?
Whatever the reason, Hollywood, now liberated from the production code, is imposing its interpretation as the only acceptable interpretation as the only acceptable interpretation of the gospel that can be portrayed in a public forum. Because Mel Gibson had the temerity to disagree and come up with an interpretation of the Gospels without rabbinic approval, he was deemed anti-Semitic, which is to say, a bad person.
By now it should be obvious that there is no defense against the charge. The charge is true if the person making it is more powerful than the person who is accused. There is no other operative definition of discourse as it is practiced today. To say there is involves an appeal to the world of objective fact, which the powerful hold in contempt.
E. Michael Jones, Ph.D. is the editor of Culture Wars.
This article was published in the December, 2003 issue of Culture Wars.
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