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Mar 5, 2004 7:08 pm

Quagmire Update

I check the New York Times and Washington Post daily but have yet to see a reported ACT of antisemitism, including taunts or shouts, resulting from The Passion of the Christ.

The worst the Anti-Defamation League has posted is Extremists Latch on to"The Passion of the Christ", which makes it clear that the folks quoted were rabid antisemites before they saw Mad Max, let alone The Passion.

It's been out for a week. Am I missing something, or is the punditocracy due the usual respect for its ability to predict the future?

By the way, if you think I'm an antisemite for thinking that the film (which I still haven't seen) won't produce a pogrom, I'm not talking about Mel or Christian theology -- I'm talking about America, the movie critics, and the professoriate. I think we public intellectuals are pretty bad at providing value for money when we offer paid predictions. Remember the mass mosque burnings in the last quarter of 2001? I live a county away from the Sikh Temple that got firebombed, so I don't underestimate the things that did occur. On the other hand, I also keep up with French synagogue burnings.

Let me offer a prediction -- The Passion of the Christ will not cause any large, medium, or small-scale outburst of antisemitism in America. I predict there will be tiny, isolated, quickly condemned, and thoroughly prosecuted incidents of antisemitism. If I'm wrong, I'll be happy to stand corrected.

FURTHER: Here's a New York Post story about the current level of antisemitic incidents in NYC as a baseline, by the way, though comments from those interviewed are contradictory.

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Michael C Tinkler - 3/6/2004

Indeed, if it increases attitudes like that (especially "Jews killed Jesus" or physical stereotypes like that I've read about the appearance of Caiphas) it could and should be said that the film encourages antisemitism. The story I linked to gave an indication of what the situation of antisemitic incidents is like in NYC (though the interpretations of trends differed -- more in the last quarter of 2003 than 2002, but fewer overall). What will it mean if they don't increase? What will it mean if they do increase?

Michael C Tinkler - 3/6/2004

Sorry - I thought my explanation that at History NEWS network historians talk about things in the news, which certainly includes current events, is definitional. Do you see a great reservation of judgment until after events play out in, say, professor Cole's commentary on Iraq (as opposed to his reportage -- they are different things)? This medium works on immediacy. If people wrote about their worries before the movie was released and I write my reaction more than a week after the release it's a start of followup to them.

I'm very sorry if what I wrote made me sound as though I would be happy if antisemitic incidents occurred. I would be outraged. I am, however, be happy to have people point out my errors in prediction-making. I am uncomfortable with the lack of accountability of predictors in the press, and I think the blogsphere has done much to correct this. Thank you for bringing to my attention that very badly written sentence.

My definition of the punditocracy is very broad - it includes anyone who writes opinion for money, which includes movie critics and "news analysis" stories (though it excludes more immediate "news"). I thought that was clear, too. I think that "pundit" has a neutral-at-best and frequently negative connotation in English. Does anyone mean it as a complement to refer to a person as a "talking head" OR a "pundit"? "Expert," on the other hand, would be my example of a word with a positive connotation used to describe people who speak in public about events. "Distance and scorn" is a bit strong to describe my feelings for paid talking-headism.

Christopher Riggs - 3/6/2004

Prof. Tinkler, it seems to me, is offering a rather limited definition of anti-Semitism.

No, there have not been any pogroms in the U.S. since the Gibson film came out (at least as far as I know). But does not anti-Semitism ultimately refer to the acceptance of certain negative and erroneous beliefs about Jewish people and Judaism--including the belief that Jews were responsible for Christ's death?

There is no question that at least some people, even "respectable" people, subscribe to such ideas. (I can remember when an old friend of mine, a highly educated scientist, once told me, in an conversation about the Holocaust, that the Jews "deserved it" because they had "killed Jesus.")

If the film reinforces those attitudes, if it makes such attitudes seem mainstream and/or at least respectable, can it not reasonably be said that the film encourages anti-Semitism?

David Michael Sucher - 3/6/2004

I think the term "punditocracy" is simply a way of characterizing other people in a manner which creates distance & scorn but without actually citing them or dealing specifically with what they are purported to have said. It's a catchall piece of rhetoric to show one's superiority.

Introducing the issue of the "punditocracy" is also a rhetorical trick to hurriedly displace attention from the movie -- PASSION -- to people who are concerned about it and to make fun of in "Worried about pogroms? You are just sooo sensitive."

Ophelia Benson - 3/6/2004

Okay but then what was the punditocracy predicting? Your post seems to imply that the whole punditocracy, Peggy Noonan, Uncle Tom Cobley and all was predicting a pogrom. Was it?

My curiosity about all this has been piqued because of a moment of MSNBC I accidentally saw a couple of evenings ago - some talking (or shouting) heads thing with the static subtitle: Elite Media Bashes 'The Passion.' Well, that's pretty rich, I must say. What is MSNBC, I'd like to know - the media of the peasantry? Coal Miners' Media? What does 'elite' mean? What does 'punditocracy' mean?

Michael C Tinkler - 3/6/2004

Nope, pundits are of many sorts - like bloggers. My only definition of the "pundictocracy" is "the people who get paid for opining in public without performing other services." I am unpaid here, and can be better described as a member of the pundi-proletariat, I suppose. Some people in my shoes refer to themselves as "public intellectuals." Heaven forfend that I should ever call myself that!

But we are all, pundits or intellectuals, people who think we can explain things and frequently offer the public no more credentials than our assertions of "expertise" rather than, say, track records. I mean, would you buy stocks on the recommendations of the people who said there would be a quarter of a million deaths in Iraq in the first year? Of course, people who buy and sell stocks are assumed to be engaged in a business different from that of the profession of History, which is what is on offer at the History News Network.

Please note the link in the right hand column to Historians' Take on the News.. What on earth is THAT other than people with degrees talking about current events? Wouldn't it be fun to have a followup column for each of those "takes"?

In the last month we have been regaled with warnings about the (a) antisemitism of the movie (which may be true - haven't seen it yet) and (b) many dire warnings of the effects on Christians' views of Jews, which so far as I can tell from the daily press were unwarranted. That's my "take" as a Ph.d. in Liberal Arts (though my dissertation is filed in the Ds under the Library of Congress system, which in some people's book makes me a licensed "historian".

What's your impression of the situation? Noticed any incidents? Or is this just punditry?

David Michael Sucher - 3/5/2004

"It's been out for a week. Am I missing something, or is the punditocracy due the usual respect for its ability to predict the future?"

It's interesting that an historian suggests that a week proves something about the impact of a movie. One week? And you are ready to make conclusions about the impact (if any) of the movie? I think it is perfectly reasonable to withhold judgment --- I have as I haven't seen the movie --- but it sounds as if there is a rush to conclusion.

Moreover, you have an interesting definition of "punditocracy" which leaves out an awful lot of people -- I don't respect them particularly but they are indeed pundits -- such as Peggy Noonan etc etc. Pundits are all Jews? Or liberals? Or concerned?

And it is reassuring that if you are wrong you'll be "happy to stand corrected?" Now that is really funny. Happy? Huh? Thanks.

Oscar Chamberlain - 3/5/2004

There has been something intense in the responses to this film. I have seen some marvelous and sometimes challenging discussions on the relationship between fact, faith, and art. I have also seen name calling and cheap shots, not simply from the usual suspects but from people who tend to avoid such tactics otherwise.

There is some real anger here, and it clearly goes beyond offense at anti-Semitism or faith alone.

Considering the secular (though not necessarily non-Christian) reactions, I think Gibson's film reminded many of why we have rejected literal approaches to the Gospel. Beyond the details and the belief in miracles and even the role of the Jews, the literal and fundamentalist approach ties all of history to those moments of Jesus life, as the four books report it and as expounded on in the letters that follow.

The world is tied not simply to the wondrousness of these teachings but to all of the limitations as well. The bigotry as well as the open-handedness, the anger at those who did not accept Jesus as well as the joy at those who form the new Christian communities.

And particularly in the western tradition, the entire universe is tied to the protracted public torture and execution of Jesus, as well as to the resurrection.

Gibson, as one of the people who sees the world as rightfully tied to that moment has shoved the moment into the face of the world. For those who, in the end, agree with that, the movie is for all its horror a sort of celebration.

The movie also, in its anger, offers vindication to those who have felt angered by what they consider rightly consider the rejection of the centrality of that torture and execution.

For those who have rejected that, it is a reminder how far we have moved from the Gospel as traditionally taught in the West. We do not want the world tied so tightly to that moment or at least to the Western tradition that places pain at the center of Jesus life.

And it is possible that Gibson has tightened those knots again, at least for a moment.