What the Whoopi Goldberg firestorm tells us.
This will almost surely be my first and last column on Whoopi Goldberg (no relation).
I’ve never been a big fan of Goldberg’s (I have different views about the plural category Goldbergs). But I think this episode raises all sorts of larger issues worth discussing. Just in case you missed the controversy, she said a bunch of ignorant things about the Holocaust. I don’t think any of them came from a sinister or antisemitic place. The woman has been saying for decades that she identifies as Jewish (more on that in a moment), which would be a weird thing for an antisemite to do. While antisemites say a lot of ignorant things about Jews, not every ignorant utterance about Jews is necessarily antisemitic. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes historical ignorance is just historical ignorance.
But what was interesting was how confident Goldberg was in her ignorance—and why she was so confident.
“I think of race as being something that I can see,” she said to Stephen Colbert, trying to clean up her comments on The View. “So, I see you and I know what race you are.” In other words, by her own admission, Goldberg’s understanding of race and racial history is literally skin deep.
I’m not interested in coming to her defense, but this is understandable, because that’s how a lot of people talk and think about race today. First, though, some history.
Nazis and race.
To say that the Nazis considered Jews to be a different, inferior race is such a rudimentary observation of historical fact it’s on par with saying the Nazis liked parades.
If you were remotely curious about this point, you could spend one minute googling “Nazis, Jews, race, etc.” Seriously, if you’ve read a single book—or Wikipedia page!—that even passingly discusses the Holocaust and Nazi thinking, you’ll know this. Maybe Whoopi Goldberg did know this at some point and just forgot. Still, taking a couple minutes to check yourself before you wreck yourself seems like a good policy when talking about the Holocaust, never mind lecturing others about the topic.
But Whoopi Goldberg, no one’s idea of an intellectual (I hope), sees race through a simplistic black and white prism of, well, black and white. And she’s hardly alone.
We don’t need to dwell on this too long, but the history of racism—or, if you prefer, racialism—in America was never solely about black versus white.
During the Progressive era, when race theory was all the rage, most of the race theorists didn’t spend a lot of time talking about black people. Sadly, this was in part because there was something close to a shameful, racist consensus about black inferiority. But that didn’t mean white racist intellectuals and politicians saw all white people as equal. When they looked at Europe they didn’t say, like a black guy stumbling on a Jimmy Buffett concert, “Man, look at all the white people.” They wrote books on the “races of Europe.”
Progressives like Stanford sociologist E.A. Ross—coiner of the term “race suicide”—focused their concerns on the rapid influx of, in Ross’ words, “Latins, Slavs, Asiatics, and Hebrews” into America. The fact that many of the Slavs, Latins, and Hebrews had white skin didn’t stop them from worrying that they would corrupt America’s superior racial Yankee genetic stock. The pale and swarthy breeders alike were thought to be better suited to the grinding work of industrial capitalism and would doom the Anglo-Saxon, Nordic, Teutonic, or Aryan elite (the terms varied). As Ross put it, “the higher race quietly and unmurmuringly eliminates itself rather than endure individually the bitter competition it has failed to ward off by collective action.” Eminent sociologist Charles Horton Cooley argued the racial dregs threatened society “in a manner analogous to that in which the presence of inferior cattle in a herd endangers the biological type.”
As Teddy Roosevelt, who was heavily influenced by Ross, put it to a friend: “If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, and Newport, and Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia, have one child, or no child at all, while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or 10—it’s simply a question of the multiplication table. How are you going to get away from it?”
Now, as I have written at great length, this history is often shameful and troubling. But we don’t hear a lot about it save when someone tries to lay it all at the feet of right-wingers, despite the fact that progressives were at the forefront of all of this stuff. (Both Ross and Cooley were presidents of the American Sociological Association, and Ross—a big supporter of the New Deal—served as the chairman of the ACLU’s national committee from 1940 to 1950.)
This is worth contemplating when so many people insist how important it is to teach critical race theory. We don’t need to dwell on CRT’s merits and demerits here, save to point out that it fosters precisely the sort of myopia Whoopi Goldberg put on display. If you think racism and bigotry are purely a function of black-white relations, you’re going to, um, whitewash a lot of history. As bad as anti-black racism was and is, the black-white binary is an exercise in erasure that renders the struggles of various non-black immigrant groups invisible to the fuller stories of oppression and struggle that define so much of American history.
That’s why it was so depressing to see the ADL—founded as an organization to combat anti-Jewish racism—write anti-Jewish racism out of its own definition of racism.
(Update: Apparently some time today the ADL opted to give another whack at defining racism, I presume in response to criticism. There’s a new “interim” definition there now as a placeholder. Of course, this just reinforces the point: These groups are all too willing to change the meanings of words in response to political winds.)
Whoopi Goldberg is, of course, her stage name. She was born Caryn Johnson. The name Whoopi was inspired by the whoopee cushion—a good sign that treating Goldberg as a public intellectual might be a mistake.
“When you’re performing on stage, you never really have time to go into the bathroom and close the door,” she told the New York Times in 2006. “So if you get a little gassy, you’ve got to let it go. So people used to say to me, ‘You’re like a whoopee cushion.’ And that’s where the name came from.”
As for the name Goldberg, it’s a little more convoluted. She used to tell people that she is of some Jewish descent, and still insists she “identifies as Jewish” even though she doesn’t practice any religion.
“Are you really somewhat Jewish? The name Goldberg is a Jewish name,” Barbara Walters asked her in 1997.
“Yes. Yes,” Goldberg responded.
“That's part of you, too?” Walters pressed in her patented hard-hitting style.
“Part of me, too. Jewish, Catholic, got Chinese people and white people in my family. I'm a mutt basically. I'm the best of all—of all the things that go into making humans.”
As a fan of mongrel vigor, I generally like this kind of talk.
But if we are to believe the science, none of this is true. When Henry Louis Gates Jr. featured her on his PBS show, a genetic test found she’s got no Jewish or Chinese people in her lineage. (Who knows about the Catholic part?)
She’s said that her mother told her she was part Jewish, and perhaps that’s true. This kind of mistake happens—just ask Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Another theory: She picked a funny sounding stage name. I mean, her first name is “Whoopi”—one must keep an open mind to this possibility. Like Tim Whatley, the Seinfeld dentist who converted to Judaism for the jokes, she thought Goldberg would open new vistas for her. After all, it’s easier to call yourself a “Jewish American princess”—and make jokes about Jewish American princesses—if you claim to be making fun of your own kind.
Now, I don’t actually mind this stuff too much. American culture has a lot of self-invention in it. Lots of entertainers got creative to break into show business. I’ve heard the theory that Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism because a Jewish black guy was less threatening to his audience and to the entertainment industry. I think this is false and unfair. But even if it were true, at least he did the considerable homework required to actually convert. Meanwhile, Goldberg just says she identifies as Jewish as if, like Michael Scott declaring bankruptcy, simply saying it does the trick.
It is interesting, however, that throughout history Jews changed their names (and religion!) to avoid discrimination, oppression, and persecution. If Goldberg read a little history about the Holocaust, she’d know that such efforts didn’t always save them. More importantly, the Jews who refused to do so—in the Roman Empire, in medieval Europe, and in Nazi Germany—often paid with their lives. From the rejection of Hellenism onward, the story of the Jewish people is one of struggle and survival amid incredible bigotry.
In other words, it seems to me that if you’re going to take the name Goldberg for the yucks and claim to identify as Jewish, you owe it to those Jews to do a little homework. If you don’t want to convert, fine; I can’t make you and I wouldn’t try. But crack a book, maybe?
In a weird way, it’s to Goldberg’s credit that she defended Rachel Dolezal’s decision to “identify” as black. “If she wants to be black, she can be black,” Goldberg said during that brouhaha. But I suspect that Dolezal, a former chapter head of the NAACP, did a lot more homework about the black experience than Goldberg did about the Jewish experience.
In short, Goldberg is something of a poster child for cultural appropriation. I think cultural appropriation is a generally idiotic sin concocted by the intersectional left. But to the extent that there’s some merit to it, Goldberg is a perfect illustration of it. The people who whine about white chefs making Korean or Mexican food complain that this is cherry picking certain cultural elements out of their historic context – or something. Well, what did Caryn Johnson do when she took the name Goldberg if not that?
And I want to be clear, Goldberg’s no hypocrite on this. Not only did she defend Dolezal, she has rightly pushed back on the very idea of cultural appropriation. “If you are going to talk about appropriating and what’s cool and what’s not, then we are all in deep doo-doo because we are doing it to each other constantly. Everybody is appropriating,” she said on The View in 2016. “Japanese are appropriating. Black folks are appropriating. Spanish people appropriate. We are appropriating each other. It’s not just a black thing.”
And she’s been pretty consistent, as far as I can tell (this “news”letter notwithstanding, I’m not a close student of hers). In 1994, she said in an interview that political correctness depends on lies because it says:
“‘I'm not going to tell you what I think; I'm going to tell you what I think you want to hear.’ Someone decides that you are incorrect for being a smoker. Or for having an abortion. Or for being gay. Or for calling yourself a Jewish-American princess. Whose right is it to decide what's right for you? And why should I have to lie to you about how I feel? And why am I not allowed to feel how I do? What is wrong?”
My only problem with this is that it leaves little room for facts and truth. If the legitimacy of a claim depends solely on feelings, rather than some basic adherence to truth, we’re left with no standards to debate reality.
Which brings me to The View, a show I have not once watched in its entirety. I don’t think they should have suspended Goldberg. She said some ignorant things, and when the truth was pointed out to her, she apologized and acknowledged her error.
This is from the ABC News website:
“Effective immediately, I am suspending Whoopi Goldberg for two weeks for her wrong and hurtful comments. While Whoopi has apologized, I’ve asked her to take time to reflect and learn about the impact of her comments,” ABC News President Kim Godwin said in a statement. “The entire ABC News organization stands in solidarity with our Jewish colleagues, friends, family and communities.”
You know what offends me about this? The phrase “ABC News.” My inner crank wants to know why on earth is The View, a show dominated by two stand-up comedians that spends much of its time—from what I’ve read at least—on beauty and diet tips and celebrity interviews called a “news” program? But even if you have a more expansively generous view of The View, founded by Barbara Walters—who always blended news and infotainment —it’s still an opinion show.
More to the point, news programs are supposed to demand that on-air talent know what they’re talking about; they should have some facts at the ready, even when people are venturing their opinions. Goldberg didn’t bring the most basic facts to bear on the conversation. If you want to suspend her for that, fine. But from what I can tell, by that standard the show should have been pulled off the air years ago.