Featured Articles

On Jews and Plagues: Adventures in Jewish Historiography

“The libel that Jews were continually plotting to poison the world had particularly tragic results during the Black Death of 1348–49.
Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism[1]

“There is no direct link between the massacres and the plague.”
Iris Ritzmann, “The Black Death as a cause of the massacres of Jews: A Myth of Medical History?”[2]

I’ve been fascinated in recent days by Jewish commentary on COVID-19, which ranges from paranoid conspiracy theories about white nationalists to blunt admissions of intense Jewish ethnocentrism. In the first instance, the FBI’s apparently permanent and unironic surveillance of teenage chat sites has resulted in a stern but ludicrous warning that “extreme right-wing groups in the US are telling their members to deliberately spread the deadly new coronavirus to police officers and Jewish people.” Aside from conjuring mental images of ultra-orthodox Jews being chased by coughing skinheads, the ADL has taken to shaking its begging bowl in regards to rumors that Jews created the novel coronavirus in order to sell vaccines and “take advantage of the markets collapse through insider trading.” This petri dish of paranoia coexists with awkward Jewish discussions of the fact that Jewish communities are ideal incubators of disease because, in the words of The Forward, “the density of Jewish social networks across all denominations is almost twice as thick as that of the average American.” Less than a year after New York’s orthodox Jewish communities became epicenters for a resurgence of measles, concerns are already growing that the same communities are going to be a devil’s playground for COVID-19, which has already claimed the lives of two ultra-orthodox Jews in London.

Both inspired and disgusted by this mixture of contemporary disease and paranoia, I thought I’d revisit some historiographical material I prepared several years ago that concerns the same themes. The following essay concerns the putative allegation that Jews caused the Black Death, Jewish apologetic narratives in historiography, and the broader role of myth in Jewish self-understanding.

Accusations of Accusations

Anyone confronting mainstream Jewish historiography for the first time is overwhelmed by the victim paradigm inherent in most scholarship, a key part of which is the idea that Jews have been irrationally scapegoated countless times over many centuries. I’ve previously described the victim paradigm:

Jewish historiography is saturated with allusions to the “unique” status of Jews, who have suffered a “unique” hatred at the hands of successive generations of Europeans. In essence, it is the notion that Jews stand alone in the world as the quintessential “blameless victim.” To allow for any sense of Jewish agency — any argument that Jews may have in some way contributed to anti-Jewish sentiment — is to harm the perpetuation of this paradigm. In this sense, the ‘victim paradigm’ also contributes heavily to the claim for Jewish uniqueness and, as Norman Finkelstein has pointed out, one can clearly see in many examples of Jewish historiography the tendency to focus not so much on the “suffering of Jews” but rather on the simple fact that “Jews suffered.”[3] As a result, the paradigm offers no place to non-Jewish suffering. … The omission of the Jewish contribution to the development of anti-Semitism (be it in a village setting or a national setting), leaves the spotlight burning all the more ferociously on the ‘aggressor.’ Within this context, the blameless victim is free to make the most ghastly accusations, basking in the assurance that his own role, and by extension his own character, is unimpeachable. The word of this untainted, unique, blameless victim is taken as fact — to doubt his account is to be in league with the ‘aggressor.’ 

Jewish historiography can be interpreted in some ways as little more than a catalog of “accusations of accusations,” to the extent that such works invariably explain historical European behavior, often exaggerated, by positing Europeans as acting on a number of irrational and fanatical beliefs about Jews. This is true of historiographical accounts of almost every historical outbreak of violence against Jews, in which Europeans are presented as indulging in pogroms because of religious fanaticism during the Crusades or putative panics about alleged Jewish ritual murder. Certain fringe elements of European folklore about Jews, such as the idea that male Jews menstruate or that Jews buried their dead with rocks so that they could throw them at Christ in the afterlife, are brought front and center in mainstream historiography and used to explain very complex situations that certainly require a more nuanced understanding.

Arguably, similar results are achieved in more contemporary history through a mainstream scholarship that argues that mass Jewish casualties during World War Two were the result of another alleged European fantasy—that of race science. The actual role of Jews in European society prior to the war can be discarded, and in fact largely has been discarded, in favor of an approach that attributes Jewish deaths to just another manifestation of European irrationality and fanaticism. As stated above, however, making the case that perhaps race science wasn’t irrational, or a fantasy, is tantamount to an admission to being in league with the ‘aggressor’ — something that few or no mainstream academics are willing to do.

The result is a body of historiography that implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, bases its argument on the idea that historical Europeans were profoundly ignorant and superstitious. Such perceptions, of course, live on in the Jewish mind, and one can only interpret aspects of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat (2006), especially its depictions of Eastern Europeans who believe that Jews hatch from eggs and can shape-shift into cockroaches (and can be persuaded to leave by having cash thrown at them), as a reinforcement of Jewish conceptions of their history. A scene depicting Cohen lying in bed, in terror at finding himself in the home of two old Jews, and clutching a cross and a fistful of cash, is intended as the ultimate parody of the historical Christian and his alleged fantasies about Jews — both religious and economic. We are encouraged to laugh alongside Jews at the apparent stupidity of our ancestors.

The Black Death in Jewish Historiography

One of the most oft-repeated of these putatively parody-worthy historical European “canards” is the idea that Jews in some way caused the Black Death (Great Bubonic Plague), an epidemiological disaster that claimed the lives of somewhere between 30% and 60% of the European population in the middle of the fourteenth century. In mainstream Jewish historiography, the most politically useful, and therefore most prominent, aspect of this particular “canard” is the notion that Jews caused the plague by poisoning the wells of Europeans. Thus we are encouraged to see such a belief as a variant on the “Blood Libel” that Jews perform ritual murder of Christians. Added to this basic framework are multiple allusions to Christian suspicions that Jews engaged in well-poisoning out of a desire to wipe out or subjugate Christians and pave the way for Jewish world domination. The underlying message of the focus on such beliefs is therefore the idea that historical Europeans were ignorant (scientifically and morally) and paranoid about Jews to the point of irrationality. Because significant numbers of Jews were set upon and killed during the years when the Black Death was active, such narratives about Europeans contain the additional message that Europeans are dangerous fantasists, and that Jews are their unfortunate and blameless victims.

The problem with historiography like this is that it’s yet another example of taking what were really just fringe beliefs and placing them as the primary motivation for complex and deep-rooted inter-ethnic hostility. The result is a wholesale condemnation of European society. For example, Robert Wistrich, now deceased, was a prominent producer of anti-European histories of anti-Semitism and claimed in one of his most famous works that “The Black Death which raged in Europe between 1347 and 1360 added yet another deadly accusation against the Jews — that of poisoning wells in order to wipe out Christians and establish their domination of the world. There is no doubt that the masses believed this charge.”[4] [emphasis added] The Israeli historian Mordechai Breuer (1918–2007) wrote in one of his seminal essays on “The Black Death and antisemitism” that “the destruction of the Jews in the days of the plague was associated with the well-poisoning libel … There is no doubt that the masses believed all the stories of the atrocities attributed to the Jews.”[5] [emphasis added] The similarity between these phrases, together with certain other textual “coincidences” have always suggested to me that Wistrich basically engaged in a quasi-plagiarism of the volume in which Breuer’s essay appeared (Antisemitism Through the Ages, 1988) for his own Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred, which appeared a few years later (1991). Regardless of such finer points, patterns of mutual reliance, often devoid of reference to verifiable contemporary primary material, are endemic in the Jewish writing of histories of antisemitism. Breuer simply had to assert that it was beyond doubt that “the masses” were beholden to irrational myths, and this was sufficient in itself for Wistrich to repeat.

Mutual referencing over time led to a situation in which the idea that Europeans irrationally blamed Jews for the Black Death is now ubiquitous. Frederic Cople Jaher writes that “Already deemed lethal foes of Christianity, Jews were blamed for causing the Plague by poisoning wells. … Another delusion about Jews that intensified at the time of the Black Death was the charge of a world Jewish conspiracy against Christianity.”[6] An entire chapter of Norman Cantor’s In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (2001) is devoted to an attempted deconstruction of claims of “The Jewish Conspiracy,” with Cantor arguing that Christians “made scapegoats of the Jews, charged them with spreading the plague by poisoning wells, and unleashed horrific pogroms on them.”[7] Mark Cohen has written that the Black Death “witnessed massive pogroms against the Jews, who were believed to have poisoned wells in an attempt to destroy Christian civilization.”[8] Perhaps the most savage character assassination of the European peoples, however, was carried out by the highly-incentivized non-Jewish historian Gavin Langmuir, who was for obvious reasons a firm favorite in the Jewish establishment. In his extravagantly-praised History, Religion, and Antisemitism (1990), Langmuir opined in relation to the Black Death that:

It would be hard to find a clearer example of irrational scapegoating. … By the late Middle Ages, in order to dispel doubts about their religion and themselves, many Christians were suppressing their capacity for rational empirical thought and irrationally attributing to the realities they denoted as “Jews” unobservable characteristics.[9]

But is any of this true?

The Myth of Irrational European Pogroms

Some of the most recent, cutting-edge historiography from non-Jewish academics continues to chip away at some of the Jewish-led consensus that formed between the 1960s and early 2000s.[10] For example, as the scholar Cordelia Hess has touched upon in her Berghahn-published The Absent Jews (2017), at least some of the historiographical accounts of anti-Jewish massacres alleged to have occurred during the Black Death are now acknowledged as being based on little more than hearsay, unreliable sources, misreadings of verifiable sources, and, to use Hess’s words, “no actual evidence of anti-Jewish pogroms.”[11] In fact, it has now been discovered that some alleged pogroms have been attributed to German towns where there had never been Jewish settlements.[12]

Of course, some violence against Jew did occur, and it occurred right across Europe. But was it motivated by “irrational” ideas about well-poisoning based on little more than fanatical religious bigotry? Contrary to the assertions of the Jewish academics named above, due to a scarcity of contemporary primary sources there is actually no definitive methodology for ascertaining how widespread certain beliefs were among “the masses” in this instance, and certainly nothing that would justify such claims as “there is no doubt the masses believed this charge.” What we do have are a relatively small number of accounts of attacks on Jews from contemporary chroniclers that paint a rather nuanced picture of what really occurred. Take, for example, the following extract from the records of the chronicler Conrad von Megenburg:

In many wells, bags filled with poison were found, and a countless number of Jews were massacred in the Rhineland, in Franconia, and in all the German countries. In truth, I do not know whether certain Jews had done this. Had it been thus, assuredly the evil would have been worse. But I know, on the other hand, that no German city had so many Jews as Vienna, and so many of them there succumbed to the plague that they were obliged to enlarge their cemetery greatly and to buy two more buildings. They would have been very stupid to poison themselves. … But I do not wish to whitewash the wickedness of the Jews.

What stands out here is von Megenburg’s scepticism. My own interpretation of the third sentence, assuming “the evil” to be the massacres and not the act of poisoning, is that if definitive proof had been found against certain Jews in regards to the bags of poison that had in fact been found in “many wells,” then the violence would “have been much worse,” and this would indicate the violence itself was at least not solely rooted in the accusation of well-poisoning, since some doubt was evidently present among those who carried out the killings. Alternately, if “the evil” being referred to was the act of poisoning, this account would suggest the author believed there was a possibility of two different events occurring — both a plague of undetermined cause, and a mass poisoning campaign orchestrated by Jews.[13] Whether Jews did or did not place bags of poison in European wells strikes me as entirely beside the point. If they did not, the question remains as to why someone would accuse them of it, or frame them for it, and Borat-like ignorance and religious hostility is simply insufficient to contextualize and explain this behavior. If some Jews did engage in the poisoning of wells, and we certainly know that it was not uncommon for medieval Jewish communities to possess their own private wells and water supply within their walled districts, this doesn’t detract from our current knowledge about the origins, nature, and spread of bubonic plague, and we would be left with certain other questions about the nature of this inter-ethnic hostility.

The question remaining is why some Jews were attacked and killed during the Black Death. Here, again, modern scholarship is reversing some of the received wisdoms of older Jewish historiography and casting doubt on some long-held assumptions. The German scholar Iris Ritzmann, for example, has argued that “there is no direct link between the massacres and the plague,” and has suggested that a much deeper undercurrent of socio-economic friction between Jews and Christians merely found expression during a time of heightened social anxiety. Ritzmann has gone as far as to argue that relations were so bad that massacres may have occurred even without the plague as a trigger event.[14] Mordechai Breuer concedes that “none of the traditional motifs” of religious anti-Semitism feature in the minutes of the interrogations of the Jews accused during the Black Death, adding “at most, they came up in connection with distant rumors about the matter.”[15] There were almost no attempts to convert the Jews, and Breuer further adds, quite contrary to some of his other assertions, that “the attackers had no intention whatever of forcing the Jews to change their faith and this was not the focus of what was happening.”

What, then, was happening?

Again, in contrast to his overall conclusion and blanket accusations against the historical European masses, Breuer is forced to concede in the middle of his own study that “an analysis of what occurred during the days of the plague indicates that social, economic, and political factors were of much greater import in fanning the flame of antisemitism than is generally understood.” Most of the aggressors during the Black Death were craftsmen and artisans who had been lent money by Jews “at usurious rates of interest.”[16] These craftsmen, essentially the middle class of their day, resented the formation of a mercantile alliance between the aristocracy and the merchant class that exploited their labor and suppressed the prices of their goods. Moreover, underpinning this alliance was a system of Jewish loans that upset the natural order they were used to. Rather predictably, anti-Jewish violence was ruthlessly suppressed by urban elites everywhere because these elites were tightly connected to Jewish finance. Documents still survive from Cologne, Freiburg, Basel, Heilbronn, Strasbourg, and Erfurt showing that city councils interpreted all anti-Jewish actions as a more general attack upon the elite status quo. Breuer comments that “by the beginning of 1349 it was clear that a number of city councils wished to suppress the popular uprising from fear that the mobs might oust them.” The European “masses” described in Jewish historiography were in fact divided into factions, each with its own particular interests, and genuine adherence to “irrational” notions of well-poisoning was of minimal import. The bottom line was that Jews were regarded as having a negative effect on the social, economic, and political fabric of the nation, and not without cause.

Conclusion

One wonders if, decades or centuries from now, Jewish historians will lament the persistence of antisemitism by explaining that Europeans once “irrationally” blamed the Jews for COVID-19. As evidence, perhaps they’ll point to some excerpts from 8chan and argue that this was the belief of “the masses.” Here I’m employing a caricature of sorts, but one not totally detached from precedent. Many decades of Jewish effort have gone into pushing the idea that our ancestors were unsophisticated Borat-like brutes who subjected the Jews to countless irrational massacres. And, although modern scholarship is chipping at the edges of this edifice, new discoveries and arguments remain far from the mainstream. One persists in seeking immunity to the contrivances of Jews and plagues.


[1] Prager, D. & Telushkin, J, Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003), 85.

[2] Ritzmann I. [The Black Death as a cause of the massacres of Jews: A Myth of Medical History?] Medizin, Gesellschaft, und Geschichte : Jahrbuch des Instituts fur Geschichte der Medizin der Robert Bosch Stiftung. 1998 ;17:101-130.

[3] Finkelstein, N. ‘The Holocaust Industry,’ Index on Censorship, 29:2, 120-130, p.124

[4] Wistrich, R. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred (London: Thames Methuen, 1991), 32

[5] Breuer, M. “The Black Death and antisemitism,” in Almog, S. 1988. Antisemitism through the ages. Oxford, England: Published for the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, by Pergamon Press, 140-1.

[6] Jaher, F. A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness: The Origins and Rise of Antisemitism in America (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1994), 68.

[7] Cantor, N. In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 152.

[8] Cohen, M. R. Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 169.

[9] Langmuir, G. I. (1990). History, Religion, and Antisemitism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 301-2.

[10] The work of the late John Doyle Klier on the mythic elements of the Russian pogroms is almost certainly without peer in this regard.

[11] Hess, C. The Absent Jews: Kurt Forstreuter and the Historiography of Medieval Prussia (New York: Berghahn, 2007, 204.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For a more contemporary parallel one might point to the post-war plot by Israelis to poison the German water supply that was only abandoned when it was disrupted by British authorities.

[14] Ritzmann I. [The Black Death as a cause of the massacres of Jews: A Myth of Medical History?] Medizin, Gesellschaft, und Geschichte : Jahrbuch des Instituts fur Geschichte der Medizin der Robert Bosch Stiftung. 1998 ;17:101-130.

[15] Breuer, “The Black Death and antisemitism,” 144.

[16] Ibid., 145.

Nietzsche (ᛣ 1900–2020): System Virtue-Signaling vs. the Great Replacement

Friederich Nietzsche (1844–1900) on his deathbed

To each his own Nietzsche. With this sentence one could start yet another discussion on this famous and famed thinker. Given the staggering number of works about him it is essential to raise the question: which Nietzsche should one read first? Should one read Nietzsche’s own prose first, or should one first read works by other authors who have written about him? And which work and by which author? The problem is all the more serious as there are no two works, no two authors among tens of thousands that are in agreement on the same interpretation of Nietzsche’s ideas. Of course, the same remark could be leveled against my own interpretations of Nietzsche. My understanding, interpretation and choice of words regarding Nietzsche’s thoughts may be different from those of other authors who claim to be his best interpreters. Consequently, I may be accused of using interpretations that may not be shared by Nietzsche or his countless interpreters.

What needs to be highlighted, however, is the link established by Nietzsche between Christian values ​​and their secular offshoots used now by the ruling class in the West as a legal and psychological basis for the arrival of non-European migrants into Europe. The System, through its sermons about human rights, whose ideological origins go back to early Christianity, is quite successful in destroying European peoples and cultures.

Aside from being an influential philosopher Nietzsche was also a philologist who understood well the subtleties of political language. Therefore, one should first single out some of his words and find out their conceptual equivalents in the French and in the English languages today, especially in the realm of higher education and high-level political rhetoric. One must keep in mind that his denunciations of Christian morality are contrasted with his praise of combative virtues of the old Greco-Roman “virtù” stripped of any modern “(moralinfreie Tugend) [i]. Nietzsche invented the word “moraline” in order to combat the excessive moralizing of the Church and the ruling class of this time. Strangely enough the word “moraline” is never used today in the modern German language, having also no adequate substitute in the English language. The great  German-American connoisseur and  translator of Nietzsche, H.L. Mencken translated “moralinfreie Tugend ” as “free of moral acid.” By contrast, modern French nationalists, when deriding the fake news of the modern System, often resort to the original German “moraline.” In the USA, however, this word could be substituted by its conceptual equivalent of  “virtue-signalling.”

When transposed into our own language Nietzsche’s words read like a harsh condemnation of the modern System with its invocations of words such as “humanity,” “peace” and “tolerance.” The goal of the System is to force citizens of European extraction to become prey to perpetual feelings of guilt. This is how Nietzsche predicted the modern unfolding of the System hundred and thirty years ago:

Almost everywhere in Europe today, there is a morbid over-sensitivity and susceptibility to pain, as well as an excessive amount of complaining and an increased tenderness that wants to dress itself up as something higher, using religion as well as bits and pieces of philosophy— there is a real cult of suffering. [ii]

In addition to his denunciation of Christian morality Nietzsche levels harsh criticism against Christian providentialism which manifests itself today in the gregarious spirit of mass democracy. Of course, the System needs to sugarcoat modern, secularized versions of Christian teachings in the mystique of human rights, in the myth of multiculturalism, in the decrees on race-mixing, and in the usage of politically correct verbiage. Pity for those who failed, for lowlifes, for criminals, including illegal Third World migrants in search of a better life in Europe, has become a mandatory vogue in political and media outlets. Professor Pierre Chassard, who could be ranked as first among French “New Right” interpreters of Nietzsche, defines Nietzsche’s criticism of Christian providentialism: “The wretched of the Earth, who are nailed to the cross, may be the only fortune tellers. Life misfits may be the elect of heaven. Only they are the good guys and others are the bad guys.”[iii] The list of self-engineered misfits could grow longer if one were to add numerous White politicians and academics burdened by self-hate and choosing therefore to become purveyors of the dogma of interchangeability of peoples, races, and genders. Such a self-hating behavior, of which Nietzsche was the first critic, is today the trademark of the System.

One could start with the expression “the great replacement.” This wording, coined by the writer Renaud Camus, is deemed unworthy by the System.[iv] Nonetheless, although Camus’ book is very useful, its title may be subject to misunderstanding. Instead of the expression “the great replacement,” one is tempted to use a more specific expression: “the great invasion.” However, even the term “invasion” harks back to the notion of the political of the previous centuries when its use was generally accompanied by an armed conflict—which is not the case for the time being with the floods of non-Europeans who are being adorned by the Western media with the sentimental title “refugees.” Understandably, the System and its scribes must avoid the usage of the terms “invasion” or “replacement,” preferring instead the romantic expressions such as “cultural enrichment” or “diversity”—terms which went global after having first appeared in the American language in the 80s of the previous century. Moreover, even if one were to agree on the label “invasion” when describing Afro-Asian migrants on their way to Europe, the choice of this word would take us far off into the field of polemology, a subject that can be tackled only in passing.

According to Nietzsche the moralization of politics leads to chaos which he labels with the word “democracy.” It is incumbent therefore upon his readers to study the effects of democracy peddled globally by the System if one was to grasp the incoming tide of chaos. To that effect it suffices to listen to the hypermoralistic language of the ruling class in order to realize that the true goal of their political experiments—dubbed “democracy” and “diversity”—is nothing else but a gigantic hoax. The outpouring of hypermoralistic narratives among Euro-American leaders, other than serving as a legal smokescreen for humanitarian actions on behalf of non-European migrants, also functions as a grand cover up for the repression against independent thinkers.

In Bismarck’s Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche did not need to confront mass migratory inflows of non-Europeans. Much earlier, however, he had grasped the origins and the global dynamics of the hypermoralistic mindset that had already taken root among politicians and intellectuals of his time—either in its liberal version or in its crypto-communist form. That early bourgeoning hypermoralistic endeavor, whose goal was the creation of the best of all worlds, or the shining communist futures, was bound to lead, a hundred years after Nietzsche’s death, to multicultural chaos observed today.

It is pointless to scorn migrants, the majority of whom are Muslim non-Europeans, without however deciphering moralistic, globalist, altruistic and ecumenical ideas that have been peddled around by the Church over the last two thousand years. It was Nietzsche’s merit to be the first to grasp that all our current political concepts, all abnormalities in the liberal system are just secular derivatives of Christian thought, “where(by) this morality is increasingly apparent in every political and social institution; the democratic movement is the heir to Christianity.”[v]

In the System today, which claims to be the best, any criticism of parliamentary democracy, or multiculturalism, let alone of miscegenation, is bound to enter the framework of the penal code or the demonology of its mainstream media executioners. While on the one hand the System prides itself on being tolerant, claiming to extend unrestricted voice even to its critics, while hiding behind the words of tolerance, diversity and humanism, on the other, it exerts total control of its population—a phenomenon hitherto unseen in the entire history of the West. From the point of view of modern languages, from the point of view of the notion of the political, the System is succeeding in reversing real European values and replacing them with surreal ones. Within the framework of these new moralizing and ecumenical values, described by Nietzsche and transposed now into the modern System, it can be expected that non-European masses entering Europe, will describe themselves as “poor refugees.” Incidentally, the term “refugees” is not of their choice; it is being bestowed on them by the System and its sycophant media.

This is how professor Alfred Baeumler, one of Nietzsche’s disciples in the first part of the twentieth century and later to become a high-ranking academic in National Socialist Germany, depicts the nihilistic message inherent in the language of liberal democracy in Europe between the two wars.

Nihilism, chaos, is the inevitable consequence of the belief in harmony without struggle, a belief in indiscriminate (gegensatzlos) order. True order only arises from the power relationship spawned by the will to power … . Only chaos is inhumane. The rule of tolerance and moral ideas, of reason and of compassion, in short of “humanity,” always leads to inhumanity. [vi]

*   *   *

Doubling down on his exotic Doppelganger

As a follow-up to such hypermoralistic endeavors conducted by the System one can observe its politicians being more and more inclined toward splitting their own selves — a process which they subsequently project on non-European migrants who are cherished now as the beacon of progress and innocence. Such a process of White self-denial is especially visible in Germany, a country which in 1945 was forced to remake its identity. As an illustration of German split-mindedness or “dopplengaegertum,” one could mention several authors of fantastic tales at the beginning of the nineteenth century who, by indirection, best predicted the fractured identity of Europeans and especially the German people two hundred years later. A good example is the famous horror story writer E. T. A. Hoffmann and his novella The Sand Man. [vii] The main character of his tale falls in love with a machine which resembles an attractive woman he had previously fabricated in his self-delusional mind. Toward the end of the tale the imaginary woman-automaton pushes the unfortunate hero to suicide. Today, we are witnessing a similar mechanical and suicidal fixation by great many German and European politicians, who, as a rule, must pretend to be enamored with fictitious and exotic Third World migrant imagery, and who are overjoyed at the thought of demolishing their own identity and replacing it with the newly borrowed make-believe Afro-Asian identity. This time around, however, men of the System are not only being themselves physically replaced by real Afro-Asian migrants; they themselves yearn to replace their original White identity by non-White surreal supra-identity.

One can provide some crass examples of such a mimetic Double while studying European politicians and their penitential pilgrimages to the holy places of world politics, namely Washington, Brussels and Tel Aviv. The Germans, however, must perform an  additional station of the cross by paying a penitential visit to Israel and recite a diplomatic chorus of mea culpa sermons. Two years ago, when German Chancellor Merkel visited Israel, she declared that “being aware of this responsibility (the Nazi crimes against the Jews, N.A.) is part of our national identity.”[viii] Without its Double, that is, without the forceful embrace of the Other, who was once either denied or colonized, the System and its do-gooders could not survive.

In the same vein, European politicians and intellectuals imagine themselves to be morally obliged to double down on their moralizing fervor on behalf of non-Europeans, assuming that they will thus better eliminate any external suspicion of their alleged neo-fascist or right-wing feelings, or better shed the label of their post-colonial crypto-nostalgia. Naturally, one could argue a lot about the benefits of this new doppelgangertum of European politicians, which has resulted in increased self-hatred, self-censorship and hypertrophy of false morals toward exotic strangers. Nietzsche grasped well this self-castrating mindset which has become today the main guideline of ​​the System.

With respect to this entire kind of priestly medication, the “guilty” kind, any word of criticism is too much. … One should at least be clear about the expression “be of use.” If by this one intends to express that such a system of treatment has improved man, then I will not contradict: I only add what “improve” means for me — the same as “tamed,” “ weakened,” “discouraged,” “sophisticated,” “pampered,” “emasculated” (hence always the same as injured).[ix]

The search for the mimicked Double, observed among Western rulers, has reached by now pathological proportions. EU politicians must double down on their benevolence towards Afro-Asian migrants in order to better rid themselves of possible charges of would-be anti-Semitism or of being guilt-free for their colonialist and racialist past. In the majority of cases, however, such mimetic behavior is the natural consequence of the Allied re-education since 1945, the aim of which was and still is the creation of new European species.

In this essay on Nietzsche one cannot dispense with the name of the German anthropologist Arnold Gehlen who wrote that “the hypertrophy of morality occurs when we accept each human being in his humaneness only, and provide him in this capacity with the highest rank of existence.”[x] Gehlen was perhaps the best connoisseur of Nietzsche during the cold war era, despite the fact that his analyses of the pathology of self-induced hypermoralism of German politicians had earned him lots of enemies on the Left and a great deal of ire among Frankfurt School reeducators. The moral hypertrophy of the early postwar System he describes is now being duplicated by European and US rulers and their “fake news” servicemen, both attempting to silence any voice of White dissent.

Neither is the Catholic Church and the papists the world over lagging behind. The most recent in the line of the moraline combat is Pope Francis with his sermons on the rights of immigrants and with his homilies that “migrants are the symbol of all those excluded from the globalized society .”[xi] When listening to Pope’s urbi and orbi, it is worth studying the reaction of would-be Afro-Asian migrants. Despite their modest IQ, they are not stupid. They know that they have powerful allies, not only in anti-fascist circles but also among the high Catholic clergy, both in the United States and in Europe.

Surely, George Soros and a host of left-leaning NGOs can be criticized for facilitating the flooding of the West by African and Asian migrants. However, the fact remains that African and Asian migrants follow only the unilateral welcoming calls from European politicians whose words had the prior blessing of the Pope and the high Catholic clergy. The latter is always diligent when mobilizing for migrants shelters or “sanctuary cities” – a gesture which only redoubles migrants’ appetite.[xii] In fact, the Church operates today as a sort of a counter-power vis-à-vis the actual legal power in place, which in any case is very lax with regard to migrants’ arrivals.

Beyond the moralizing phrases about the benefits of multiculturalism and miscegenation propagated by the System and the Church, the iron laws of biology and heredity cannot be ignored. In the years to come the states of the European Union will be exposed to multireligious and multiracial conflicts among and between new non-European migrants, conflicts of great magnitude and long duration. By their obsessive politics of self-denial, European countries, with Germany at the helm, will hardly be able to cope not just with the great replacement, but also with internal conflicts between diverse ingroups of non-European migrants themselves. Contrary to a wide misconception among EU leaders and many academics, racial intolerance and xenophobia is by no means the privilege of White nationalists. Racial pride and racial exclusiveness are by no means the monopoly of the White European stock. Low-level conflicts between and among nationals of Asian origin and nationals of sub-Saharan origin now residing in the West, will have a bright future. Worse, side by side with various moralizing social justice warriors and anti-fascist squads, the System won’t be able to persuade migrants to embrace the same liberal ukases, the same legal standards, the same scholastic tests, nor the same Western political concepts. Liberal rules and regulations, when forced upon non-White migrants, will always remain unacceptable to them. Thus, in the name of “diversity” the System keeps destroying not only the identity of European peoples, but also the identity of non-European newcomers.

Sooner or later multicultural states break up and terminate their trajectory in civil wars. Also, within the great replacement overhaul underway now, interracial wars among non-European migrants will be aggravated by large demographic changes. In addition, these hybrid civil wars looming large in the West now, will be accompanied by an increase in victimhood narratives by different tribes and ethnicities residing in Europe, each claiming, of course, the first place on the victimhood list. Mutual distrust, followed by the decline in civic solidarity and the dissolution of political order will become the order of the day. The hypermoralizing and masochistic antics of White politicians, among whom the German politicians are doing the surplus overbidding, are the logical outcome of the culture of guilt inherited from the fascist, colonial, Ustasha or National Socialist past. Following the incessant incantations by the System of “mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” – what would Nietzsche now say about our fatality? Long ago his answer was clear enough: ” There will come a day when my name will recall the memory of something formidable — a crisis the like of which has never been known on earth.”[xiii]

 


Notes

[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist (transl. Henry L Mencken) (LA: The Noontide Press: 1997) p. 43.

[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (trans. Judith Norman), (Trinity University Press: 2002), p. 174.

https://www.holybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/Nietzsche-Beyond-Good-and-Evil.pdf

[iii] Pierre Chassard, La philosophie de l’histoire dans la philosophie de Nietzsche (Paris: éd. GRECE, 1975), p.78.

[iv] Renaud Camus, Le Grand Remplacement (Paris: éditions David Reinharc, 2011).

[v] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, p. 90.

[vi] Alfred Baeumler, Nietzsche; der Philosoph und Politiker (Leipzig; Reclam, 1931), p. 72-73.

[vii] E.T.A.Hoffmann, The Sandman (Translated by C. Moncrieff). (Surey: Alma Classics, 2012). https://almabooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/The-Sandman-Excerpt.pdf

[viii] The Times of Israel, « Merkel : la mémoire des crimes nazis « inséparable » de l’identité allemande  ,” December 6, 2019. https://fr.timesofisrael.com/la-chanceliere-allemande-angela-merkel-a-auschwitz-pour-la-premiere-fois/

[ix] Friederich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (Transl. Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swenson), Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998) p. 109.

[x] Arnold Gehlen, Moral und Hypermoral (Frankfurt: Athenäum 1969), p. 143.

[xi] Le Monde, « Le pape François : « Les migrants sont le symbole de tous les exclus de la société globalisée » » July 8, 2019. https://www.lemonde.fr/afrique/article/2019/07/08/le-pape-francois-les-migrants-sont-le-symbole-de-tous-les-exclus-de-la-societe-globalisee_5486931_3212.html.

[xii] Cf. T. Sunic, « Non-White Migrants and the Catholic Church: The Politics of Penitence, » The Occidental Observer, April, 2017. https://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/2017/04/29/non-white-migrants-and-the-catholic-church-the-politics-of-penitence/

[xiii] Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, “Why I am a Fatality” (Transl. A Ludovici), ( London: TN Foulis, 1911), p. 131. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/52190/52190-h/52190-h.htm#WHY_I_AM_A_FATALITY

The Coronavirus Silver Linings Playbook

Greetings fellow anthropoids! Having received the day’s talking points from CNN, I will dutifully refrain from calling the viral scourge of the globe “Chinese.” I do not know if it is appropriate to cite the origin of the saying/curse “May you live in interesting times,” so I will not, but interesting times these are, at least in some ways. In others it’s banality as usual. While the kabuki theater (more appropriately bukkake theater in these post-Jussie Smollett Days of the Rainbow) continues as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders compete to see who can debase themselves more for their Island of Misfit Toys electorate, as one side tries to shove more visas[1] into any coronavirus relief package and the other abortions, as the UNHCR and IOM continued to greenlight the re-settling of “refugees” from coronavirus-stricken regions into what’s left of your neighborhood up until March 17th, it was business as usual. Keep those borders wider than Jussie Smollett’s…never mind.

In all seriousness, though, this epidemic has exposed just how fragile the neo-liberal globalist system is. Thousands have died, thousands more will die, and millions are out of work. The response, or more appropriately lack thereof, by our leaders shows exactly what they are willing to risk in order for the status quo to be maintained. Already, the UNHCR came out and admitted that there were at least ten confirmed coronavirus cases among “refugees” and asylum seekers in Germany, prompting nameless aid officials to worry that “this might undermine future support for taking refugees.” I should think so, but our support for this project has never been required. Things will resume as they were once the crisis is over.

Or will they?

Most of the ramifications of the virus are mere accelerations of what was on the horizon. It is a black swan event, but one which has been lurking for some time. This was inevitable in some fashion. Imagine if it had happened ten years down the line when 100% of our pharmaceuticals rather than 95% of ibuprofen, 70% of acetaminophen, and 80% of antibiotics are made in China. There’s one silver lining, and another is that regular people are seeing firsthand just how untenable the neo-liberal system is, and where the priorities of the ruling class truly are. Many probably did not realize just how suicidally-dependent we are on Chinese manufacturing. On some level, perhaps, but walk into any grocery store (hypothetically speaking, I hope you are all well-stocked up by now) and you will see the effects already. All things considered and with apologies to those affected, this is really just a ripple compared to what could have happened, or what may yet come.

Do you think the latest batch of gender-queer “refugees” from parts unknown[2] have appropriately prepared themselves for any kind of disruption with canned goods, extra toilet paper, bottled water, a bug-out bag, and the like? Or the rest of the wonderful “diversity” we are so enriched with? Hardly. Guess what happens next?

Ominously, several municipalities have discussed banning the sale of guns, ammunition, and gasoline in any container other than a vehicle gasoline tank. Mayor Deborah Frank Feinen of Champaign, Illinois, signatory of the Champaign-Urbana Chapter of Bend the Arc Jewish Action’s pledge to Reject White Nationalism, already granted herself these powers and others, powers including the ability to prohibit entry into and out of the city, direct the shut-off of water, gas, and power, and “take possession of private property and obtain full title to same.”

And what about when the State Department agrees to begin greenlighting more “refugees’” entry into the country on April 7th, as they’ve promised? Fuel to the fire? We obviously don’t have work or resources for millions of people already here, and there will continue to be less, so what’s going to happen next? And will these people be appropriately screened? Of course not. Officially the flow is temporarily stopped, but there are a number of end-arounds, ranging from just walking over the border to the refugee privatization aspect I discussed with the state of Maine.

Anyone still harboring any illusions about Donald Trump needs to read the following. He led off his March 19th press conference on the measures being taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus by celebrating the return of “New Hampshire man” Amer Fakhoury from Lebanon to receive medical care for his stage 4 lymphoma. It’s not like our medical professionals have other things to worry about, right? Oh, and by the way, Fakhoury collaborated with Israel during their occupation of southern Lebanon.

In late January and February, after assuring constituents that the coronavirus was nothing to worry about and after receiving a private briefing on the situation, Senators Richard Burr and Kelly Loeffler offloaded stocks at this crucial time, well before the current crisis point. Burr co-authored a piece for Fox News on February 7th stating that, “the United States today is better prepared than ever before to face emerging public health threats, like the coronavirus.” The kinds of stocks are especially damning, such as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Burr’s dumping of $150,000 worth of shares of Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which has lost two-thirds of its value, according to ProPublica, and $100,000 of shares of Extended Stay America. All told Burr is alleged to have sold off as much as $1.72 million in stocks. In addition to allegedly offloading stocks to the tune of up to $3.1 million, Loeffler or her husband Jeff Sprecher (Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange) also purchased stocks on February 7th for Citrix, a company that provides remote working software and technologies. Shortly after the January 24th full-Senate briefing, Dianne Feinstein, James Inhofe, and David Perdue all sold off large amounts of stock; Feinstein is alleged to have sold off up to $6 million in stocks from late January to mid-February. Perdue not only offloaded stocks in Caesars Entertainment but also loaded up on $245,000 in Pfizer stock.

So the government, on either side of the aisle, is genuinely an occupation government, depraved beyond all redemption and yes, we know this, but millions more are seeing it plain as day in the most obvious fashion imaginable. And the Dissident Right, led by the work of people like Tom Kawczynski and his incredible Coronavirus Central podcast, has been at the forefront of providing people with reliable unbiased information, which enhances our credibility immeasurably and is an obvious conduit to the truths we speak and write on other topics people have been so conditioned to ignore or even be afraid of. We could extend this on a much larger scale to the role Tucker Carlson is playing every night; no, he’s not Kevin MacDonald, Andrew Joyce, or Brenton Sanderson, but he is the most visible and accessible gateway to our ideas.

I won’t pretend the coronavirus is a good thing, but I am trying to find the silver linings in this situation. Obviously it would be preferable if one day there was a mass awakening to the decadent self-interest of our ruling class, of the subversion and dismantling of our country, but that was never and is never going to happen like some revelation. Perhaps this is the closest thing, and the conditions are such that we had better take advantage of it. There was always going to be collateral damage—just be safe and make sure that damage isn’t you, take care of your family and friends, and keep on fighting the good fight so one day we will never have to find ourselves in such a vulnerable position with criminally-negligent and downright hostile rulers like this again.


[1] In this instance, it would be the EB-5 “immigrant investor” visa; in 2014, more than 85% of the over 10,000 EB-5 visas issued were for Chinese nationals according to a study by real estate services firm Savills Studley. Under the Lindsey Graham proposed “addition,” the amount required for investment would be halved and the visas issued increased to 75,000 from around 10,000 per year.

[2] I use this as an example one, to continue the theme of sorts, but two, I have on good authority this is the latest golden ticket lie asylum-seekers and “refugees” have been coached-up to use, that of “fear of persecution for gender identity or sexuality.”

How COVID-19 Will Test the West

“If trouble comes when you least expect it, then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.”
      Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Writing anything about COVID-19 at this moment is a daunting task since the situation is evolving so rapidly, and in so many different locations. Information contained in this piece could be thoroughly outpaced by transformative events by the time it reaches publication, or even by the time I finish up and click “save.” There is also a glut of information online right now, some of it reliable and fascinating, and some of it misleading and counterproductive. Everywhere there is a mixture of growing apprehension, clashing opinion, and outright confusion. If the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center’s interactive map is accurate, there are currently 284,566 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, a figure that is growing. The “true” number of infections, that includes asymptomatic carriers, will be much higher. Beginning on February 24th, an accelerating number of new transmissions emerged outside China, primarily in Italy which currently has over 47,021 cases. At time of writing, France and Germany are also experiencing rapid increases in affected persons, together totaling over 33,000 cases, and Spain is on the brink of a national lockdown with over 25,374. Almost every European country has now been affected, and COVID-19 is now spreading in the United States, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia. How will it test the West?

Relations with China

Early speculation on COVID-19, especially in dissident circles, orbited conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered, and that it was either deployed by the United States or was an accidental leak from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology. In recent days, the former theory has been eagerly taken up by the Chinese themselves, with the added detail that COVID-19 may have been unleashed by visiting American soldiers during the Military World Games, which were staged in Wuhan in October 19-27, 2019. According to epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, in the course of a very interesting interview with Joe Rogan, it’s possible to date the origins of human COVID-19 through a process much like carbon dating, and scientists now have data suggesting COVID-19 became active in humans for the first time in mid-November 2019. Ron Unz has asked:

How would Americans react if 300 PRC officers had visited Chicago, and immediately afterwards, a deadly new plague broke out in that city, with a major risk of spreading throughout the country? Isn’t it also rather suspicious that Iran has been hit so hard? So the two countries in the world most subject to current American hostility just tend to be especially “unlucky.” It hit China just before Lunar New Year, the absolutely worst possible time, and the epicenter was Wuhan, a key transport hub. It really seems an *astonishing* coincidence that 300 American military servicemen had been visiting Wuhan just prior to the outbreak, at a peak of international tension.

Other than timing of course, there seems to be little or no evidence that this was a bioweapon attack. Most obviously, one would assume that any attempted bioweapon attack by the United States on China would be much more covert than what has been suggested (a deliberate release by a very public group of soldiers). Also, while we know that SARS-like viruses based on bat coronavirus can be developed in the lab, the genome of COVID-19 has also been examined countless times with the result that there are now over 300 papers on MedRXiv concerning the structure, nature, and origins of the virus. None of these papers have highlighted anything suggesting an artificial origin of any aspect of COVID-19.

Conspiracy theories on the origins of COVID-19 are of course a very convenient and useful tool for the Chinese government, because they deflect attention from the fact the outbreak can easily be attributed to bad government, and to Communism itself. I find the idea that the virus originated in a Wuhan “wild food” market to be utterly compelling (see this documentary by 60 Minutes Australia, and this short piece by Vox), and this has direct consequences for perceptions of Chinese Communism. The consumption of “exotic” foods is itself a legacy of the Great Chinese Famine 1959–1961, after which the government permitted private farming but failed to prevent the monopoly by big companies of the rearing of conventional livestock. The peasantry, priced out of the market, resorted in large numbers to the farming of wild animals, especially, in the initial stages, the farming of turtles. Since this curbed starvation to some extent, the government backed these initiatives, and then in 1988 made the encouragement of domestication and breeding of wildlife an explicit aspect of law. Wildlife farming became an industry overnight. Bears, snakes, rodents, lizards, and bats began to be mass-produced for human consumption, and sold in mass markets in many of the country’s largest cities. In these markets, multiple species, alive and dead, are stacked in cages on top of one another, with the animals soaked in cocktails of urine and excrement—each cage a petri dish for the development new diseases, especially respiratory diseases, with the potential to jump to humans from myriad mammals. Together with its failure to take decisive preventative action in January 2020, and absent conspiracy theory speculation, the origin tale of COVID-19 is ultimately an indictment of Chinese politics and culture.

How that indictment will impact relations between the West and China remains to be seen. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have speculated that while mutual suspicion between the Chinese and the United States will remain high, the coronavirus outbreak will have no meaningful impact on trade between the two countries, and may in fact help de-escalate some prior economic tensions and involve the suspension of tariffs. In the longer term, however, COVID-19 has accelerated discussion about the need to become more independent from China in the production of goods. Several multinational corporations with supply chains based in China, having already considered diversifying their supply chains because of the U.S.-China trade war, are now likely to further their plans. Apple, for example, intends to move some manufacturing of its products (including AirPods and Apple Watches) to Taiwan due to the coronavirus. In Washington, members of Congress have used the outbreak to call for scaling back U.S. reliance on China, especially for prescription drugs, medical supplies, and other critical resources. Since Europe (Germany in particular) is the world’s largest manufacturer of drugs and medicines, we are likely to see a gradual decoupling of the United States from Chinese production, and a greater integration of European-American trade. Brexit Britain, until recently seen by the Chinese as having great potential for a lucrative trade and investment deal, may now present more of a cold house than previously thought. The EU, already resistant to increased Chinese economic influence, is also likely to dig its heels even deeper in the face of Chinese approaches. Some of the lasting challenges of COVID-19 will be how the West can distance itself from economic dependence on Chinese manufacturing, what impact this will have in both the shorter and longer term, and how the Chinese will respond.

Migrant Pressures

The first European outbreaks of COVID-19 fatefully coincided with an aggressive two-week operation by Turkey on its border with Greece, involving the movement of thousands of Syrian and African migrants. Beginning in late February, the Turkish government announced it would no longer stop migrants trying to reach Europe, and then drove thousands to the Greek border, live-streaming the process to encourage more to follow. The move was widely understood as an attempt to force European support for Turkey’s military campaign in northern Syria, and also as an attempt to extort more money from the EU. Although the effort now appears to have concluded with Turkey backtracking in the face of Greek resilience, Europe continues to have this metaphorical human “pistol” pressed to the side of its head.

COVID-19 is going to aggravate the broader migrant problem. Already the clamor is growing that migrant camps on Europe’s borders should be evacuated on health grounds, with the migrants permitted to enter Europe. Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have argued that unhygienic and cramped living conditions mean COVID-19 can spread very fast, and that social distancing and hand washing are more difficult. While Europe bans mass gatherings, it’s been said that people in these camps have nowhere to go. Even within European countries, the outbreak has been associated with calls for amnesties and the opening of migrant detention centers. In the UK, lawyers and campaigners have called for hundreds immigration centers detainees to be released “because of fears they will contract coronavirus while locked up.”

The problem with such calls is that they all appear to present COVID-19 as a deadly plague slaughtering all in its path, rather than as something that afflicts the most seriously ill among the old and infirm. As is well known, the average age of Europe’s would-be migrants, particularly those from Syria, is somewhere around the late 20s. Given the known progression of COVID-19 in people in this age category, calls to permit mass influxes of masses of migrants purely because of the outbreak is tantamount to calling for open borders because potential immigrants might otherwise catch the common cold. Such calls are likely to ride the crest of a media-induced wave of panic, however, and the resolve of the West to resist further migrant flows will indeed be tested by twisted forms of moral blackmail in the weeks and months to come.

Life and Death under Liberalism

As stated in my review of Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985), we live in a decaying society  that is in terror of death, and pathologically so. This pathology is rooted in mistaken beliefs that our civilization is dying from, or could imminently die from, disease epidemics, climate catastrophes etc., in the midst of willful and ignorant abdication of a future (via self-hate and industrialized abortion) in favor of mass immigration, consumerism, and instant gratification. Just as one has to confront death in order to truly live (or to become “authentic” in Heidegger’s philosophy), our society is in constant flight from death and thus inevitably collapses into inauthentic decay. COVID-19, while not as lethal as media coverage would suggest, is a reminder of our mortality and human fragility and will necessarily have a jarring effect on a Western liberalism that has become increasingly distant from the confrontation with death.

Life under liberal finance capitalism is largely one of illusion, in which the prospect of real death is pushed far into the distance, both psychologically and culturally. Postmodern Western liberal culture is largely one of perpetual adolescence, in which the primary virtues are acting according to one’s individual will, identifying oneself in a hyper-individualistic manner, and expressing these identities via conspicuous consumption and behavior. We do not “live towards” Death, with a sense of purpose and a feeling that we are part of a much grander civilizational trajectory. We do not understand that Death has shaped our historical path, and that it hangs over us in ways that should direct our actions in the present.

COVID-19, regardless of current confusion over its true mortality rate, is a corrective to illusions that “progressive” Man has overcome Nature and can shape the world according to the human image, and without consequences. Certainly throughout my own lifetime, I’ve grown accustomed to assertions that life expectancy will continue to increase, and that there will be an endless supply of innovations and social projects that will make the mechanics of life easier and more productive. One increasingly expects that one will live a long life, mostly in very good health. Such a sense of security can breed all kinds of arrogance and fantasies, including the recent perverse luxury of the delusion that one can simply decide to be this or that gender. This new virus, however, presents the possibility, both in itself and its inevitable heirs, that Death is much closer than we ever thought, and that for all our technological advancement and self-congratulation, Nature need only tweak one molecule, so small our naked eyes could never perceive it, and the grave opens before us. The Age of Fantasy is confronted with the ultimate reality.

How the West responds to this realization will be a further cultural challenge. We have grown equally accustomed to the idea that we have “advanced” morally as a society, and that we have overcome some of the more “brutish” aspects of human existence that we perceive in the past. But in a world of apparently increasing plenty, such notions can be hard to test. It’s always easy for a man with a full stomach to condemn the actions of the starving. The conceit of the full-bellied West that it has overcome and surpassed itself and its past will now be tested. I, of course, arise from a political and philosophical tradition that insists there is no shame in the past. I see little or no place for morality in the struggle for survival. And I also see the cracks already forming in the Western conceit. This society that is against “hate” and prides itself on “coming together” is already struggling to stop people rioting over toilet paper and bottled water. If civil order breaks down, will the proud feminists be seeking their own resources, or hoping for a strong man to protect them? If the death toll does rise dramatically, and if curfews and lockdowns are imposed and intensified, I ask: How well will your beloved multicultural societies respond? If resources become scarce and tensions rise, who will you trust? These tests are coming.

Economic and Political Fallout

Just days ago, JPMorgan projected that a recession will hit the US and European economies by July, with US GDP to shrink by 2% in the first quarter and 3% in the second, and Eurozone GDP to contract by 1.8% and 3.3% over the same periods. Sudden cessation of economic activity through quarantines, event cancellations, social distancing, and the almost complete shutdown of the tourist industry will have both immediate and longer term consequences for national economies and broader trade patterns. The mass closing of schools will expose pre-existing weaknesses in a modern system that sees women funneled en masse into the work place while their children are left in day cares or schools. According to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of American mothers with children under 18 work. Through the closing of schools alone, the impact of COVID-19 will almost certainly have the greatest impact on the role of women in the workplace since World War Two, with many forced to leave work and return to the home for an as yet undetermined amount of time. How this will impact the businesses or public entities employing these women remains to be seen, but it will undoubtedly cause significant difficulties and necessitate some level of infrastructural change.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is also projected to test Western healthcare provision to the limit. It’s been particularly interesting that the outbreak in Italy effectively broke the health system in Lombardy, widely regarded as one of the best in the world. Before the outbreak, it was remarked that:

The Lombardy healthcare system, characterised by quality and efficiency, is a model of reference both in Italy and worldwide. With the benefit of private partnerships in fact, it ensures its citizens and those who live in other regions or abroad have access to prime level health care with all the advantages of a public system. Lombardy has 56 University Departments of Medicine, 19 IRCCS (IRCCS means an institution devoted to excellence in clinical care and research) which represent 42% of the national total, 47 Institutes and 32 Research Centres. As a result, Lombardy and in particular Milan have always attracted the most renowned physicians in every field of expertise.

It took COVID-19 just four weeks to exhaust every hospital bed in Lombardy, force doctors out of retirement and medical students to graduate early, and provoke the creation of 500 triage tents outside hospitals nationwide. The different, and ever-politicized, healthcare systems of the United States and Great Britain are about to experience the most intensive test in their respective histories. One of the most outspoken figures from the medical profession on social media in recent days is Eugene Gu, who has made a point of attacking the profit-seeking nature of much of the American medical establishment. Gu has argued that American medicine is essentially a pyramid scheme that profits those at the top by artificially restricting the number of doctors produced by the system:

The medical school and residency system in the United States is completely broken compared to other countries. Now that we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, we need to reflect upon an abusive system that hurts patients and seeks to make a few specialists filthy rich. Even before the coronavirus, we created a huge physician shortage by limiting spots in medical schools to inflate doctors’ salaries the same way De Beers fixes the diamond market. And we gutted primary care so that specialists like plastic surgeons and dermatologists can get rich. I took an oath to “first, do no harm.” I cannot just stand by and watch as the corrupt cesspool we call our American medical system fails our patients while a few doctors, insurance executives, and Big Pharma get filthy rich. Medicine should not be a for-profit industry.

Whether or not one agrees with Dr Gu’s perspective, the coming weeks and months will test both American for-profit medicine and Britain’s nationalized health system, and perhaps leave long term political legacies for both.

Political consequences will also inevitably result from the approaches of individual leaders to the crisis. Boris Johnson is risking his political future on a “herd immunity” strategy that is radically different from the course of action pursued by other leaders. It’s been criticized as involving the sacrifice of the older generation for a slightly prolonged period of economic normalcy and an entirely assumed future immunity among the young. Donald Trump, meanwhile, is quickly trying to move on from a highly dismissive initial response to the outbreak. In both cases, and throughout the West, moderately “conservative” populism based on the celebration of finance capitalism and token gestures on borders will be tested to the limit by increasing strains on all aspects of social, political, and economic life. Trump, in particular, has managed to squeeze a lot of political mileage out of the performance of the stock market. With stocks tumbling, and the American healthcare system pushed to the limit, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s drive to make gay sex legal in Africa will be enough to keep his voters happy.

In another return of the Real, of course, COVID-19 is doing more to close borders than any expression of political populism ever has. It was all well and good that “the world is a village” when this involved cheap and cheerful vacations, but all it took was a few houses in the throes of sickness for the rest of the villagers to wish there was somewhere they could escape to. The global village is in shutdown. All humans might be equally susceptible to this virus, but national borders, so often scorned until recently, now reveal they might have some uses after all – just one of them being the invaluable opportunity to seal and control a limited territory. How people grow accustomed to this renewed emphasis on border control may leave a lasting political legacy for the West also. In any case, we can only hope it will.

Conclusion

With events moving so quickly, I conclude with the oppressive sensation that I’ve written both too much and too little. The figures presented at the outset of this essay will be superfluous by the time this piece is published, but I do think some of the suggestions in the body will remain relevant for some time to come. I wish all our readers the best of luck and the best of health in the weeks and months to come. May globalism’s difficulty be the dissident’s opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionism, and the Decline of Western Art, Part 3 of 3

Convergence by Jackson Pollock (1952)

Abstract Expressionism and the Culture of Critique

Abstract Expressionism was disproportionately a Jewish cultural phenomenon. It was a movement populated by legions of Jewish artists, intellectuals, critics, and patrons. Prominent gentile artists within the movement like Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell married Jewish women (Lee Krasner and Helen Frankenthaler). Willem de Kooning defied the trend — though had to ingratiate himself with the Jewish intellectual and cultural elite focused around the journal Partisan Review which was “dominated by editors and contributors with a Jewish ethnic identity and a deep alienation from American cultural and political institutions.”[i]

For Jewish writer Alain Rogier, it seems “hardly a coincidence that Jews made up a large percentage of the leading Abstract Expressionists.” It was an art movement where the culture of critique of Jewish artists, frustrated that the post-war American prosperity prevented the coming of international socialism, turned inward and instead “proposed individualistic modes of liberation.” This mirrored the ideological shift that occurred among the New York Intellectuals generally who had “gradually evolved away from advocacy of socialist revolution toward a shared commitment to anti-nationalism and cosmopolitanism (i.e. the multicultural project), ‘a broad and inclusive culture’ in which cultural differences were esteemed.”[ii] Doss notes how this ideological shift manifested itself among the artists who became the Abstract Expressionists:

As full employment returned, New Deal programs were terminated — including federal support for the arts — the reformist spirit that had flourished in the 1930s dissipated. Corporate liberalism triumphed: together, big government and big business forged a planned economy and engineered a new social contract based on free market expansion. … With New Deal dreams of reform in ruins, and the better “tomorrow” prophesied at the 1939–1940 New York World’s Fair having seemingly led only to the carnage of World War II, it is not surprising that post-war artists largely abandoned the art styles and political cultures associated with the Great Depression.[iii]

The avant-garde artists of the New York School instead embraced an “inherently ambiguous and unresolved, an open-ended modern art… which encouraged liberation through personal, autonomous acts of expression.” The works of the Abstract Expressionists were “revolutionary attempts” to liberate the larger American culture “from the alienating conformity and pathological fears [especially of communism] that permeated the post-war era.”[iv] Rothko claimed that “after the Holocaust and the Atom Bomb you couldn’t paint figures without mutilating them.” His friend and fellow artist Adolph Gottlieb, declared that: “Today when our aspirations have been reduced to a desperate attempt to escape from evil, and times are out of joint, our obsessive, subterranean and pictographic images are the expression of the neurosis which is our reality. To my mind… abstraction is not abstraction at all… it is the realism of our time.”[v]

At the heart of Abstract Expressionism lay a vision of the artist as alienated from mainstream society, a figure morally compelled to create a new type of art which might confront an irrational, absurd world—a mentality completely in accord with that of the alienated Jewish artists and intellectuals at the heart of the movement who viewed the White Christian society around them with hostility. MacDonald notes that the New York Intellectuals “conceived themselves as alienated, marginalised figures — a modern version of traditional Jewish separateness and alienation from gentile culture. … Indeed [Norman] Podhoretz was asked by a New Yorker editor in the 1950s “whether there was a special typewriter at Partisan Review with the word ‘alienation’ on a single key.”[vi]

During the 1950s Jewish artists and intellectuals chafed against the social controls enforced by political conservatives and religious and cultural traditionalists who limited Jewish influence on the culture, “much to the chagrin of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals who prided themselves in their alienation from that very culture.” This all ended, together with Abstract Expressionism as an art movement embodying the alienation of the New York Intellectuals, with the triumph of the culture of critique in the 1960s, when radical Jews and their gentile allies usurped the old WASP establishment, and thus “had far less reason to engage in the types of cultural criticism so apparent in the writings of the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals. Hollywood and the rest of the American media were unleashed.”[vii]

Jews and Modernism

In his exposition of the political significance of the widespread Jewish involvement in cultural modernism the Jewish historian Norman Cantor noted that: “Something more profound and structural was involved in the Jewish role in the modernist revolution than this sociological phenomenon of the supersession of marginality. There was an ideological drive at work.”[viii] This ideological drive was the urge to subject Western civilization (deemed a “soft authoritarianism” fundamentally hostile to Jews) to intensive and unrelenting criticism — in the process of which they spawned a massive literature of cultural subversion throughout the post-war period.

Kevin MacDonald notes how there was a great deal of influence and cross-fertilisation between the New York Intellectuals and the Frankfurt School. Both promoted modernism in art at least partly because of its apparent compatibility with expressive individualism, but also because it was seen as being capable of alienating people from Western capitalistic societies. For Frankfurt School intellectual Walter Benjamin the purpose of modern art was to spread the kind of cultural pessimism that would bring on the revolution, insisting that “To organise pessimism means nothing other than to expel the moral metaphor from politics.” His colleague, Willi Munzenberg, saw the central role of the Frankfurt School as being “to organise the intellectuals and use them to make Western Civilisation stink. Only then, after they have corrupted all its values and made life impossible, can we impose the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Clement Greenberg and the New “American” Art

Clement Greenberg was the most influential theorizer and promoter of modernism in America during the middle years of the twentieth century. His advocacy helped to bring about the institutionalisation of Abstract Expressionism and to secure the dominance of American modernist art in the immediate post-war period. MacDonald notes that Greenberg “made his reputation entirely within what one might term a Jewish intellectual milieu” including as “a writer for PR, managing editor of Contemporary Jewish Record (the forerunner of Commentary), long-time editor of Commentary under Elliot Cohen, as well as art critic for The Nation.”[ix] Greenberg’s Jewish identity was strong, and he once avowed that “that the quality of Jewishness is present in every word I write, as it is in almost every word of every other contemporary Jewish writer.”[x] He also claimed that it likely “that by world historical standards the European Jew represents a higher type than any yet achieved in history.”[xi]

Clement Greenberg

Greenberg’s later rejection of Pop and Conceptual Art led to a period when his writings and preferences were dismissed by those who aligned themselves with the views of rival Jewish art guru Harold Rosenberg. This arose from Greenberg’s dogmatic advocacy of abstraction, and his distaste for commercial popular culture — what he called “kitsch” in his most famous essay “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) — his response to the destruction and repression of modernist art in National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” one of the most influential essays of the twentieth century, made Greenberg’s name as a critic and led to his participation in the world of cultural journalism as an editor of Partisan Review.

It is not hard to detect an underlying concern with anti-Semitism in Greenberg’s famous essay. There was a general understanding among both the Frankfurt School and the New York Intellectuals that mass culture — whether in the Soviet Union (both groups were anti-Stalinist), National Socialist Germany, or bourgeois United States — promoted conformism and escape from harsh political realities. It “offered false pleasure, reaffirmed the status quo, and promoted a pervasive conformity that stripped the masses of their individuality and subjectivity.”[xii] By contrast, avant-garde art had the potential to foster the kind of subjective individualism that could disconnect the masses from their traditional familial, religious and ethnic bonds — thereby reducing the salience of Jews as an outgroup and weakening the anti-Semitic status quo within these societies.

In his essay, Greenberg downplays the culturally critical potential of avant-garde art, and instead seeks to account for the ubiquity of “kitsch” in totalitarian societies by stressing its usefulness in ingratiating a regime with the masses — a practice that, he informs us, will only cease when these regimes “surrender to international socialism.” He writes:

Where today a political regime establishes an official cultural policy, it is for the sake of demagogy. If kitsch is the official tendency of culture in Germany, Italy and Russia, it is not because their respective governments are controlled by philistines, but because kitsch is the culture of the masses in these countries, as it is everywhere else. The encouragement of kitsch is merely another of the inexpensive ways in which totalitarian regimes seek to ingratiate themselves with their subjects. Since these regimes cannot raise the cultural level of the masses — even if they wanted to — by anything short of a surrender to international socialism, they will flatter the masses by bringing all culture down to their level. It is for this reason that the avant-garde is outlawed. … Kitsch keeps a dictator in closer contact with the “soul” of the people. Should the official culture be one superior to the general mass-level, there would be a danger of isolation.[xiii]

Greenberg’s thesis is not without validity. Indeed one of the striking features of modern Western life under Jewish cultural hegemony has been an all-pervasive popular culture of Hollywood that is supersaturated with the rankest multi-cultural and multi-racial kitsch. Despite the real-world failure of the utopian vision being relentlessly endorsed, this form of easily assimilated kitsch (seasoned with liberal doses of sex, violence and schmaltz) works very well to brainwash the great bulk of White people and avert even the mildest forms of rebellion.

Greenberg’s famous essay in Partisan Review

“Kitsch” works for the Jews of Hollywood for the same reason it worked for Hitler and Stalin. This is because kitsch is defined by efficiency of communication, while the avant-garde alienates some viewers “simply because this was an inescapable by-product of their formal experiments and of their rejection of kitsch.”[xiv]  Barlow notes that, for Greenberg:

Kitsch worked to maximize effect, while the avant-garde sought to address cause. Both commerce and totalitarian regimes sought maximum penetration of controllable information. They required the culture of kitsch. Mass culture will almost inevitably be kitsch, as passive consumers will comprehend accessible effects more readily than the self-conscious explorations of cause. Only in a truly socialist society will mass culture transcend the psychology of passive consumption. Despite important differences between the two men, Greenberg’s attitude to popular culture is close to that of Theodor W. Adorno.[xv]

Like Greenberg, Adorno initially directed his attack not against the high culture of Western civilization, but against the “mass culture” which warred with it — a “secondary emanation of authority” which was an inescapable product of capitalism. For Adorno, nothing was more abhorrent in the mass culture of America than its music. For him, popular music, riddled with cliché and kitsch, was not art but ideology that promotes a false consciousness that numbs the revolutionary senses of the working class. It is the owners of the means of communication (the capitalist class) that is sovereign in this debased musical culture. Under socialism, Adorno implied, this false consciousness would be swept away and the emancipated proletariat would be whistling the ideology-free music of Schoenberg and Webern in the streets.[xvi] However, as Roger Scruton noted, this aspect of Frankfurt School’s critical theory was later to change fundamentally:

Since the Frankfurters came as exiles to America, there to pour scorn on their hosts, the culture of repudiation has taken another and more home grown form. Instead of focusing on the “mass culture” of the people, it now targets the elite culture of the universities. It is indifferent, or even vaguely laudatory, towards popular art and music, seeing them as legitimate expression of frustration and a challenge to the old forms of highbrow knowledge. Its target is the culture in the sense that I have been defending it: all those artefacts that have stood the test of time, and which are treasured by those who love them for the emotional and moral knowledge that they contain.[xvii] 

Unlike his rival Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg never embraced this new critical paradigm. In his essay “Towards a Newer Laocoon” (1940) he articulated his famous claim that resistance to kitsch requires that art “emphasize the medium and its difficulties,” adding that the history of the avant-garde is one of “progressive surrender to the resistance of the medium.”[xviii] Greenberg argued that the vision of the Abstract Expressionists was characterized by a “fresher, opener, more immediate surface,” offensive to standard taste. He related this quality to a “more intimate and habitual acquaintance with isolation,” which was, in his ethnically, morally and culturally particularistic view, “the condition under which the true quality of the age is experienced.”[xix]

Greenberg’s dismissal of Harold Rosenberg’s account of Abstract Expressionism as “action painting” was based on his view that Rosenberg’s claim implied that the active process of painting mattered more than the result — that one chaotic combination of drips and splodges was as good as another. For Greenberg, Rosenberg’s theory gave the green light to charlatans whose work was no more than “stunts.” Such stunts certainly came into prominence with the rise of Pop and Conceptual art during the 1960s as many artists embraced Rosenberg’s claim that the moment of “performance” could itself be art. This aspect of the art scene in the 1960s earned Greenberg’s contempt, but as Barlow points out, “could all too easily be interpreted as the conservative critic whose time had passed — the modern equivalent of Ruskin’s attack on Whistler.”[xx]

Harold Rosenberg

It is somewhat ironic that Greenberg, an ethnocentric Jewish Trotskyite, in his staunch defence of Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction, and rejection of the “pre-emptive kitsch” of Pop Art, Neo-Dada and Conceptual Art, was pushed into the role of cultural reactionary. The Abstract Expressionists Greenberg championed had been eager to break with the figurative art of the Regionalist painters, but their work (owing to its highly abstract nature) lacked the more overtly ideological form of much of the conceptual art that replaced it. This shouldn’t, however, obscure from us the fact that the rise of Abstract Expressionism coincided with the Jewish takeover of American high culture, and the deposing of the old WASP art establishment. Nor should it obscure the profound influence Greenberg’s ideas continue to have on Western culture.

Since “Avant-garde and Kitsch,” artistic and cultural production in the West has been underpinned by an aggressive “kitschophobia.” Since Greenberg’s essay was published, figurative painting, tonal music, and classical architecture have been regarded with suspicion (if not outright hostility) by cultural elites. It was fear of kitsch that gave rise to the pre-emptive kitsch of postmodern art:

Artists began not to not to shun kitsch but to actively embrace it, in the manner of Andy Warhol, Alan Jones, and Jeff Koons. The worst thing is to be unwittingly guilty of producing kitsch; far better to produce kitsch deliberately, for then it is not kitsch at all but a kind of sophisticated parody. … Pre-emptive kitsch sets quotation marks around actual kitsch, and hopes thereby to save its artistic credentials. … Public galleries and big collections fill with the pre-digested clutter of modern life, brash items of salesmanship which pass their sell-by date the moment they go on permanent display. Art as we knew it required knowledge, competence, discipline and study, all of which were effective reminders of the adult world. Pre-emptive kitsch, by contrast, delights in the tacky, the ready-made, and the cut-out, using forms, colours and images which both legitimize ignorance and also laugh at it, effectively silencing the adult voice. Such art eschews subtlety, allusion and implication, and in the place of imagined ideals in gilded frames it offers real junk in quotation marks.[xxi]

This “kitschophobic” art belligerently shuns the traditional Western preoccupation with beauty—substituting for it a cult of sarcasm, nihilism and ugliness (yet always within a politically correct framework). To be an “authentic” creation, postmodern art must “challenge,” and preferably be offensive, to standard taste. If this requires producing a dead shark in formaldehyde or a crucifix in urine, then so be it. These deliberately ugly and offensive productions, wittingly or unwittingly, provoke among their audiences a disconnection from the traditional reinforcers of ethnocentrism and group cohesion, and engender what Frankfurt School intellectual Georg Lukacs called “a culture of pessimism” reflecting a world “abandoned by God.”

Israel Shamir aptly summarized the process of degeneration that has occurred within Western art over the last 70 years when he noted that: “In the beginning, these were works of some dubious value like the ‘abstract paintings’ of Jackson Pollock. Eventually we came to rotten swine, corrugated iron, and Armani suitsArt was destroyed.” An art that emerged in response to the alienation of Jewish artists and intellectuals in mid-twentieth century America ushered in an art of cultural alienation for everyone. This debasement of the West’s glorious cultural inheritance has sapped the cultural confidence of White people, and contributed to making Western societies, in the eyes of their increasingly atomized populations, increasingly “unlovable” and not worth defending.


[i] MacDonald, Culture of Critique, 211.

[ii] Ibid., 212.

[iii] Erika Doss, Twentieth-Century American Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 124.

[iv] Ibid., 130-1.

[v] Doss, Twentieth-Century American Art, 128.

[vi] MacDonald, Culture of Critique, 212.

[vii] Kevin MacDonald, ‘Review of Thomas Wheatland’s ‘The Frankfurt School in Exile’ Part II’, Occidental Observer, 2009: http://www.theoccidentalobserver.net/articles/MacDonald-WheatlandII.html

[viii] Cantor, The Sacred Chain, 303.

[ix] Ibid., 211.

[x] Ibid., 213.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] MacDonald, Review of Thomas Wheatland’s “The Frankfurt School in Exile.”

[xiii] Clement Greenberg,

[xiv] Paul Barlow, In: Key Writers on Art: The Twentieth Century, Ed. By Chris Murray (London: Routledge, 2003), 152.

[xv] Ibid., 150.

[xvi] Roger Scruton, Culture Counts — Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (New York: Encounter Books, 2007), 70.

[xvii] Ibid., 73.

[xviii] Barlow, Key Writers on Art, 150-1.

[xix] A. Everitt, “Abstract Expressionism” In: Modern Art — Impressionism to Post-Modernism, Ed. By David Britt (London: Thames and Hudson, 1974), 256.

[xx] Barlow, Key Writers on Art, 151.

[xxi][xxi] Roger Scruton, Modern Culture (London: Continuum, 2000), 93.

Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionism, and the Decline of Western Art, Part 2 of 3

Go to Part 1.

Wisconsin landscape by John Steuart Curry (1938-39)

Creating a New “American” Art

Before the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the 1940s, the American art scene was defined by two main currents. The first were the Regionalists (e.g. Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry) who used their own signature styles to portray the virtues of the hard-working rural American population. The second group were the artists of Social Realism (e.g. Ben Shahn and Diego Rivera), whose work reflected urban life during the Great Depression and their devotion to international socialism. Neither was interested in abstract art, and despite their political radicalism the Social Realists held rather conservative attitudes to figurative representation. While these two styles dominated, the artists of the nascent New York School “met frequently at the legendary Cedar Bar, where they discussed their radical theses. They argued endlessly about the problems of art, about how to effect a total break with the art of the past, about the mission of creating an abstract art that no longer had anything to do with conventional techniques and motifs.”[i]

The Museum of Modern Art did not yet exist; the Metropolitan Museum tended to “look down its WASP patrician nose at modernism;” and the Whitney favoured exactly the kind of American painting young Rothko most despised: scenic, provincial, anecdotal, and conservative.[ii] For a Jewish outsider like Rothko, who in 1970 declared that he would never feel entirely at home in a land to which he had been transplanted against his will, urban America was his America.

But what was on the mid-town gallery walls was, for the most part, another America altogether: big Skies, fruited plain, purple mountain majesty, the light of providence shining on the prairie. About that America Rothko knew little and cared less. Early on, he had the sense that America ought to offer an art that was as new and vital as its history; but he also wanted that art to play for high stakes, to be hooked up somehow to the universal ideas he was chain-smoking his way through. Just what such an art might look like, however, he had as yet not the slightest idea.[iii]

The New York Intellectuals (who were overwhelmingly Jewish) associated rural America with “nativism, anti-Semitism, nationalism, and fascism as well as with anti-intellectualism and provincialism.” By contrast, urban America was associated “with ethnic and cultural tolerance, with internationalism, and with advanced ideas.” Their basic assumption was that rural America “with which they associated much of American tradition and most of the territory beyond New York” had “little to contribute to a cosmopolitan culture” and could therefore be dismissed.

Artistic Expression as “Unrelated to Manual Ability or Painterly Technique”

Rothko’s skill in rendering the human form was poor, which is evident in early works like Bathers or Beach Scene (Untitled) (1933/4). Schama admits as much, noting that: “When he [Rothko] stood in the Brooklyn [Jewish Center] classroom [where he taught art classes from 1929–46] it all seemed so easy. He would tell the children not to mind the rules — painting, he said, was as natural as singing. It should be like music but when he tried it came out as a croak. It’s the work of a painfully knotted imagination. No not very good.”[iv] According to the general consensus, Rothko “never stood out as a great draughtsman and could even at times appear clumsy in the execution of his oil paintings.”[v]

Bathers or Beach Scene by Mark Rothko (1933–34)

Rothko, in a speech in the mid-thirties, offered a quasi-philosophical rationale for the unimportance of technical skill, stressing “the difference between sheer skill, and skill that is linked to spirit, expressiveness and personality.” He insisted that artistic expression was “unrelated to manual ability or painterly technique, that it is drawn from an inborn feeling for form; the ideal lies in the spontaneity, simplicity and directness of children.”[vi] Such grandiloquent pronouncements from Rothko were not unusual, with Collings noting that “Rothko was outrageously over-fruity and grandiose in his statements about art and religion and the solemn importance of his own art.”[vii]

This tendency on his part prompted one writer to declare: “What I find amazing … is how a painting which is two rectangles of different colors can somehow prompt thousands upon thousands of words on the human condition, Marxist dialectics, and social construction.” He suggests a good rule of thumb is “the more obtuse terms an artist and his supporters use to describe a work, the less worth the painting has.  By this definition Rothko may be the most worthless artist in the history of humanity.” Another critic humorously observed that:

Rothko needed to be fluent in rationalizing his existence and validating himself as a relevant artist to the average idiot who spent tens of thousands of dollars on paintings which could be easily reproduced by anyone with a pulse and a paint brush. Rothko … learned to garner attention to his paintings by getting into a frenzied drama-queen state and hysterically claiming that his works were deep, profound statements and not just indiscriminate blobs of color. They were expressions that rejected society’s expectation of technical expertise, actual talent and an artist’s evolution over time.

As well as self-interestedly seeking to redefine the nature of great art, Rothko often spoke out for the importance of “artistic freedom,” which in practice meant artistic freedom for those on the left. He became involved in the famed 1934 incident between John D. Rockefeller and the Social Realist painter, Diego Rivera. This began when Rivera was commissioned to paint a huge mural in the lobby of the main building of Rockefeller Center, the newly completed showcase of the oil baron’s ideals. Shortly before Rivera completed his work, Rockefeller dropped in and saw that the mural had a defiantly socialist message based on a heroic depiction of Lenin. He ordered the removal of the mural, resulting in its destruction. After this incident, a group of 200 New York artists gathered to protest against Rockefeller, and Rothko marched with them.[viii]

Part of Diego Rivera’s mural for Rockefeller Center

Jewish Ethnic Networking and “The Ten”

In 1934 Rothko was one of the original 200 founding members of the Art Union and Gallery Secession which was devoted to the newest artistic tendencies. A year later he became a member of the group who called themselves “The Ten” (the minimum number of Jews that can pray together). This unashamed exercise in Jewish ethnic networking was an opportunity for Rothko and his colleagues to engage in mutual admiration and promotion, and agitate in favor of “experimentation” and against “conservatism” in museums, schools and galleries.[ix] Among “The Ten” were Ben Zion, Adolph Gottlieb, Louis Harris, Yankel Kufeld, Louis Schanker, Joseph Solman, Nahum Chazbazov, Ilya Bolotovsky and Rothko. Gottlieb, in describing the group, later recalled: “We were outcasts, roughly expressionist painters. We were not acceptable to most dealers and collectors. We banded together for the purpose of mutual support.” “The Ten” acted as an alliance against the promotion of Regionalist art by the Whitney Museum of American Art, which to them was too “provincial” for words.[x]

Rejecting the local artists’ Regionalist perspectives, they were unable to define themselves as mere U.S. citizens. Instead, they presented themselves as cosmopolitan internationalists, freer and more open to incorporate the intercultural lessons of the European Modernist avant-gardes. When the fascist regimes began to decapitate these new art movements (with the closing of the Bauhaus in 1933 and the mounting of the exhibition Entartete Kunst [Degenerate Art] in Munich in 1937), great masters like Josef Albers and Piet Mondrian made their way to the United States, and American Jewish artists welcomed them with open arms.[xi]

The pronounced ingroup-outgroup mentality of “The Ten” mirrored that within the Jewish intellectual movements reviewed by Kevin MacDonald in Culture of Critique, where he notes how Norman Podhoretz described the group of Jewish intellectuals centered around Partisan Review as a “family” – a sentiment derived from their “feeling of “beleaguered isolation shared with masters of the modernist movement themselves, elitism – the conviction that others are not worth taking into consideration except to attack, and need not be addressed in one’s writing; out of the feeling as well as a sense of hopelessness as to the fate of American culture at large and the correlative conviction that integrity and standards were only possible among ‘us.’”[xii]

Within these alienated and marginalized Jewish groups was an atmosphere of social support that fostered an intense “Jewish ingroup solidarity arrayed against [what they saw as] a morally and intellectually inferior outside world.”[xiii] Despite the ethnic superglue, there were tensions within the Jewish milieu of “The Ten,” with Schama pointing out that, ”Amidst the usual Talmudic bickering of leftist factions, the denunciations and walk-outs, Rothkowitz and his comrades were all burning to make an art that would say something about the alienation, as they saw it, of modern American life.”[xiv] For Rothko, “the whole problem of art was to establish human values in this specific civilization.”[xv]

Isolationism as “Hitlerism”

Jewish gallery owners like Sam Kootz decried the “nationalist” art of the Regionalists and promoted the internationalist art of a rising generation of (often Jewish) expressionist, surrealist and abstract artists. “America’s more important artists are consistently shying away from Regionalism and exploring the virtues of internationalism,” he commented at the time. “This is the painting equivalent of our newly found political and social internationalism.”[xvi] For Rothko, like for most American Jews, the Second World War was a moment of universal moral crisis. He had only become an American citizen in 1938 and like many American Jews, “he was worried about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the possibility of a revival of anti-Semitism in America, and U.S. Citizenship came to signify security.” Following the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, Rothko along with others left the American Artists’ Congress to protest its continuing support for the Soviet Union.

When on the first anniversary of Pearl Harbor, the Metropolitan Museum organized an exhibition entitled Artists for Victory, consisting of 1,418 works by contemporary artists—John Steuart Curry took first prize—the Federation of Modern painters vehemently criticized the works, denouncing them as “realist and isolationist.”[xvii] Jewish abstract artist Barnett Newman took a clear stand against local American artists, declaring: “Isolationist painting, which they named the American Renaissance, is founded on politics and on an even worse aesthetic. Using the traditional chauvinism, isolationist brand of patriotism, and playing on the natural desire of American artists to have their own art, they succeeded in pushing across a false aesthetic that is inhibiting the production of any true art in this country…. Isolationism, we have learned by now, is Hitlerism.”[xviii]

Jewish artist Barnett Newman with his “true”art untainted by “Hitlerism”

Rothko enthusiastically celebrated American entry into the war, insisting that it represented “an escape from narrow-minded isolation,” and “a reconnection with the destinies of modern history.” Schama observes that:

Now Rothko and his painter friends — so many of them originally European Jews — wanted American art to go the same way. With European civilization annihilated by fascism, it was up to the United States to take the torch and save human culture from a new Dark Ages. It was not just a matter of offering safe haven to the likes of Piet Mondrian or Guernica, but rather the authentic American way — doing something bold and fresh, taking the fight to the enemy which had classified modernism as “degenerate” and had done its best to destroy its partisans. … The Nazis had art (as well as everything else) entirely the wrong way round. The modernism they demonized as “degenerate” was in fact the seed of new growth, and what they glorified as “regenerate” was the stale leavings of neo-classicism. Their mistake was America’s — and particularly New York’s — good fortune.

This was a time when many American Jews were changing or modifying their names to sound less Jewish. In January 1940 Marcus Rothkowitz officially became Mark Rothko. During the war years Rothko’s art changed too: he produced a series of surrealistic pictures inspired by Freud’s interpretations of dreams, C.G. Jung’s theories of the collective unconscious, and ancient Greek mythology. Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy was an important influence at this time.[xix] One source claims that “Amid an era of rising anti-Semitism, such themes enabled Rothko to address the unfolding catastrophe in Europe without publically proclaiming his status as a Jew.”

The Jewish Ethnic Networking Finally Pays Off

In the 1940s, Rothko’s intensive Jewish ethnic networking started to bear tangible fruit. He befriended Peggy Guggenheim, “the most voracious patroness of American avant-garde art,” who had migrated to New York in 1941. Guggenheim’s artistic consultant, Howard Putzel, “convinced her to show Rothko in her Art of This Century gallery, where she had opened in 1942, during the low point of the war.”[xx] In 1945, Guggenheim decided to put on Rothko’s first one-man exhibition at her gallery.[xxi] In 1948, Rothko invited a coterie of mainly Jewish friends and acquaintances to view his new “multiforms.” The prominent Jewish art critic Harold Rosenberg found these works “fantastic,” and called the experience “the most impressive visit to an artist” in his life.”[xxii] Rothko returned the favor, lauding Rosenberg as “one of the best brains that you are likely to encounter, full of wit, humaneness and a genius for getting things impeccably expressed.”[xxiii]

One of Rothko’s “fantastic” multiforms

When, in late 1949, Sam Kootz inaugurated his new gallery, he asked Rosenberg to select the artists for the opening show, and Rothko was inevitably among them. That year Rothko produced his first “color field” paintings, describing his new method as “unknown adventures in unknown space,” free from “direct association with any particular, and the passion of organism.” 1949 was also the year Jewish art critic Clement Greenberg expressed the hope that “national pride will overcome ingrained philistinism and induce our journalists to boast of what they neither understand nor enjoy.” Greenberg’s article appeared in the Nation on June 11, and two months later, journalist Dorothy Seiberling took up Greenberg’s challenge in an article in Life Magazine entitled: “Jackson Pollock: is he the greatest living painter in the United States?” This article, published in a magazine with a circulation of five million, made Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists famous.[xxiv] Subsequent articles by Sieberling sought to “make Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline accessible to a somewhat perplexed public.”

When, in 1950, the Metropolitan Museum announced an exhibition entitled American Painting Today, Rothko’s Jewish colleagues Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, in a letter published in the New York Times, lashed out at the curator for being hostile to “advanced art,” accusing the director of “contempt for modern painting,” and lamenting that “a just proportion of advanced art” had not been included in the upcoming exhibition.[xxv] Rothko was moved at the time to flatly reject the “whole tradition of European painting beginning with the Renaissance.” “We have wiped the slate clean,” he declared. “We start new. A new land. We’ve got to forget what the Old Masters did.”[xxvi]

In the 1950s, Rothko had arrived at his mature style, and with Katherine Kuh and Sidney Janis as his professional agents, “enjoyed both fame and material success at last.”[xxvii] Rothko’s professional ascent was fostered by these two eminent personalities of the art world: Kuh was the curator of the Art Institute in Chicago; and Janis an art dealer with the power to make or break reputations. In her biography of Rothko, Annie Cohen-Solal emphasizes the role of Jewish ethnic networking in Rothko’s rise from obscurity to celebrity in the American art scene. “Of all the ‘dynamic players’ instrumental to anchoring Rothko’s position as artist in American society,” she notes, “how not to mention that these two, in particular, were ‘assimilated’ Jews?”[xxviii]

Influential Jewish art dealer Sidney Janis

As soon as she became curator of the Art Institute’s painting department in 1954, Kuh proposed a solo show of Mark Rothko, and following the exhibition, the Institute “proudly announced that the museum had purchased No. 10, 1952, for its permanent collection. ‘It is needless to tell you how greatly this transaction contributes to the peace of mind with which my present work is being done,’ Rothko admitted to Kuh.”[xxix] Meanwhile, taking on Sidney Janis as his dealer in 1954 “marked a shift into higher gear” that resulted in a “spectacular windfall for Rothko.”[xxx] Janis signing up and actively promoting Rothko settled his status “as a protagonist of international importance in the post-war art scene.” After this, Rothko’s art was declared a good investment by Fortune magazine, which led to his relationship with colleagues Clifford Still and Barnet Newman deteriorating to the point where “They accused Rothko of harbouring an unhealthy yearning for a bourgeois existence, and finally stamped him as a traitor.”[xxxi] Sales of Rothko’s work would only improve when, a few years later, Congress passed a new tax law particularly advantageous to art collectors.

The Seagram Murals

In 1958, Rothko received a contract to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in the Seagram’s Building in New York. The man who approved the commission was Seagram’s American subsidiary head Edgar Bronfman Sr.—later to become President of the World Jewish Congress. The fee offered was $35,000 (a huge sum at the time). Rothko was, however, uncomfortable with the commission and the damage it might do to his bohemian reputation, and subsequently refunded the money and asked for the completed murals to be returned. The idea that his “Seagram murals,” conceived as deep metaphysical statements, would become mere background decorations, was intolerable. Nine of them were permanently installed in a room at the Tate Gallery in London in 1970.

According to an unsigned source, Rothko’s color field paintings of the 1950s and beyond “can be seen as profound mediations on the Holocaust,” with their rectangular forms inviting “associations with the haunting images of mass graves seen in American newspapers and magazines during and after the war.” The dark tones of Rothko’s Seagram murals are described as “doorways to Hell” and “likened to the rims of flames: responses with obvious Holocaust resonance.” These paintings are widely held to be Rothko’s greatest achievement. Rothko certainly thought so, immodestly equating them with Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.[xxxii]

Rothko’s Seagram Murals at the Tate Modern

1961 marked the climax of Rothko’s public recognition as an artist with a comprehensive exhibition of his work at MoMA. The man responsible, MoMA’s Jewish curator, Peter Selz, raved about “these silent paintings with their enormous, beautiful, opaque surfaces [that] are mirrors, reflecting what the viewer brings with him. In this sense, they can be said to deal directly with human emotions, desires, relationships, for they are mirrors of our fantasies and serve as echoes of our experience.”[xxxiii] Selz, alongside fellow Jew Alan Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was one of “New York’s reigning curators,” was, like Rothko, “born into a European-Jewish family, but he came from Munich and had immigrated to the United States in 1936, driven out of Germany by the rise of Nazism.”[xxxiv] For Rothko, “who had already encountered various secular Jews in his professional trajectory—from Peggy Guggenheim to Sidney Janis, Katherine Kuh, and Phyllis Lambert”—Peter Selz would be the one to stage Rothko’s most prestigious exhibition in the United States.”[xxxv]

Despite the cheerleading of New York’s Jewish-dominated art establishment, a few critics resisted the enthusiasm for Rothko, most notably the gentile Howard Devree who, regarding Rothko’s paintings, noted that “the impact is merely optical rather than aesthetic, the validity as a work of art negligible. Seemingly it has become necessary for the color group to increase the size of their paintings, with corresponding emptiness; to make impact and size equivalent; and, as a corollary, they escape making any valid statement.” Devree compared Rothko’s paintings with “a set of swatches prepared by a house painter for a housewife who cannot make up her mind.”[xxxvi]

Works of ineffable genius or “a set of swatches prepared by a house painter
for a housewife who cannot make up her mind?”

Critic Emily Genauer described Rothko’s paintings as “primarily decorations,” which for Rothko was the ultimate insult. Rothko’s works were, she opined, “less paintings, as a painting is generally conceived, than theatrical curtains or handsome wall decorations.” Leading art critic and historian, John Canaday, observed “Mr Rothko’s progressive rejection of all the elements that are the conventional ones in painting, such as line, color, movement and defined spatial relationships,” before dismissing his work as “high-flown nonsense.”[xxxvii] Doubtless with Devree, Genauer and Canaday in mind, Rothko, who was intensely protective of his memory and paintings, once declared: “I hate and distrust all art historians, experts and critics.”[xxxviii]

The Rothko Chapel

In 1965 Rothko was commissioned by the oil tycoon John de Menil and his wife Dominique to paint a series of panels for a chapel in Houston, the city where they lived. Rothko adorned this chapel — a small, windowless, geometric, postmodern structure — with a collection of dark (almost black) murals essentially devoid of any content. The Jewish head of MoMA, Peter Selz, inevitably declared these paintings masterpieces, insisting that “like much of Rothko’s work, these murals seem to ask for a special place apart, a kind of sanctuary, where they may perform what is essentially a sacramental function…”[xxxix]  Dominique de Menil claimed to be similarly impressed, asserting that Rothko’s colors “became darker, as if he were bringing us to the threshold of transcendence, the mystery of the cosmos, the tragic mystery of our perishable condition.”[xl]

Rothko Chapel Murals: bringing us to the “threshold of transcendence?”

Rothko’s place at the summit of the New York art world was threatened three years after his MoMA exhibition when the Golden Lion was awarded to Robert Rauschenberg at the Venice Biennale of 1964. This gave prominence to the emerging artists of the Neo-Dada and Pop Art movements, and made Abstract Expressionists like Rothko seem passé.

In 1968, Rothko was diagnosed with a mild aortic aneurysm. Ignoring his doctor’s orders, he continued to drink and smoke heavily, avoid exercise, and ignore dietary prescriptions—which also exacerbated his depression and seclusion. He died in his studio on February 25, 1970 after overdosing on anti-depressants and cutting his right arm with a razor blade. He was 66 years old and left no suicide note. After Rothko’s death, 798 of his works were “procured” by his then dealer, Frank Lloyd, the Jewish director of the Marlborough Gallery, in dubious circumstances. The lengthy legal proceedings this initiated became emblematic of mounting financial corruption in the art world, and led to a growing distrust of art dealers among Americans.[xli]

Conclusion

Opinions vary widely about Rothko’s work and legacy. Many within the Jewish-dominated art establishment hail him as a genius, a creator of transcendental, spiritual works for secular times. Others cannot believe that any sane person would pay hundreds of millions of dollars for what amounts to nothing more than a large, empty canvas occupied by two colors divided into separate rectangles by a third color. What is clear, however, is that Rothko’s career and burgeoning posthumous reputation have been overwhelmingly the result of shameless barracking and hyping on the part of the Jewish intellectual and cultural establishment. Rothko’s son had the chutzpah to draw a parallel between his father’s work and that of Mozart, insisting that his father’s paintings are “the visual embodiment of a Mozart composition.”

Jews have long used their cultural dominance to construct “Jewish geniuses” to foster ethnic pride and group cohesion. It has been (and remains) a standard feature of Jewish intellectual life in the West to wildly exaggerate the significance of Jewish scientists, writers, composers, artists and intellectuals (often while downplaying the achievement of their non-Jewish peers). The absurdly exalted status accorded to Mark Rothko and his oeuvre is emblematic of this practice. Rothko is surely an artist for whom the expression “the emperor has no clothes” is particularly apposite.

Go to Part 3.


[i] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 10.

[ii] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, 403.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art TV Series.

[v] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 64.

[vi] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 24.

[vii] Matthew Collings, This is Modern Art (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999), 169.

[viii] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 26.

[ix] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, 405.

[x] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 26.

[xi] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 7

[xii] In MacDonald, Culture of Critique, 217.

[xiii] Ibid., 218.

[xiv] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, 406.

[xv] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art TV Series.

[xvi] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 90.

[xvii] Ibid., 79.

[xviii] Ibid., 88.

[xix] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 33.

[xx] Ibid., 38.

[xxi] Ibid., 39.

[xxii] Ibid., 45.

[xxiii] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 97.

[xxiv] Ibid., 116.

[xxv] Ibid., 121.

[xxvi] Ibid., 126.

[xxvii] Ibid., 153.

[xxviii] Ibid., 138.

[xxix] Ibid., 144.

[xxx] Ibid., 117.

[xxxi] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 50.

[xxxii] Norbert Lynton, The Story of Modern Art (Oxford: Phaidon, 1989), 242.

[xxxiii] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 174.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 175.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 147.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 176.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 161.

[xxxix] Ibid., 185.

[xl] Ibid.

[xli] 206

Mark Rothko, Abstract Expressionism, and the Decline of Western Art, Part 1

Mark Rothko

The life and career of Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko is a prototypical Jewish story that encapsulates a range of themes discussed at The Occidental Observer. Central to Rothko’s story is the political radicalism of Eastern European Jewish migrants arriving in the United States between 1880 and 1920; the reflexive hostility of these migrants to the traditional people and culture of their new homeland, and how this hostility was reflected in the artistic and intellectual currents that came to dominate Western societies in the twentieth century. Rothko’s story also exemplifies other familiar themes including: the power of Jewish ethnic networking and nepotism in promoting Jewish interests (both individual and collective), and the tendency for Jewish “genius” to be constructed by Jewish intellectuals as self-appointed gatekeepers of Western culture.

With Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko has been accorded a leading place in the ranks of the Abstract Expressionists. If there is such a thing as a cult artist among the liberal Jewish intelligentsia, then Rothko is probably it. Important people stand in grave silence before his empty expanses with looks on their faces that bespeak lofty thoughts. As a critic for The Times noted:

Rothko evokes all that could be criticized as most pretentious, most clannish, most pseudish about his spectators. They stand there gravely perusing something that to the outsider probably looks more like a patch of half-stripped wallpaper than a picture and then declare themselves profoundly moved. And many outsiders will start to wonder if they are being duped, if this Modernist emperor actually has no clothes on and his fans are just the blind followers of some aesthetic faith.[1]  

For critics like Ottmann, Rothko’s genius is indisputable and he possessed an “extraordinary talent” that enabled him to transfer his metaphysical “impulses to the canvas with a power and magnetism that stuns viewers of his work. … In fact Rothko’s skill in achieving this result — whether intentional or not — perhaps explains why he was once called ‘the melancholic rabbi.’”[2] For prominent Jewish art historian Simon Schama, Rothko’s “big vertical canvasses of contrasting bars of colour, panels of colour stacked up on top of each other” qualify him as “a maker of paintings as powerful and complicated as anything by his two gods — Rembrandt and Turner.” For the ethnocentric Schama, “these [Rothko’s] paintings are equivalent of these old masters. … Can art ever be more complete, more powerful? I don’t think so.”[3]

After experimenting with Expressionism and Surrealism, Rothko finally arrived in 1949 at the style that would typify his work until his death by suicide in 1970 at the age of 66. This consisted of two or three floating rectangles of color painted against a monochrome background. A pioneer of what the Jewish art critic Clement Greenberg christened “color field” painting, Rothko claimed that only abstract painting could express the “full gravity of religious yearnings and the angst of the human condition.” He intended their effect to be transcendental with his stated goal being “only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on.” Rothko claimed that “a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures” which showed they were “having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” His final works became so minimalistic (large black canvasses) as to be almost void of any substance.

Mark Rothko’s No. 6 (Violet, Green and Red) which sold for $186 million in 2014

In the twenty-first century, the sale prices of Rothko’s paintings at auction have risen consistently, surpassing those of his Abstract Expressionist colleagues, to reach staggering sums in the vicinity of $200 million. In 2011, Mark Rothko became the main character in Red, a successful Broadway play that treated him as a unique genius and won six Tony Awards.[4] Rothko would have approved of the portrayal: Elaine de Kooning once noted how he was “hypnotized by his own role, and there was just one. The role was that of the Messiah.”[5]

The making of Mark Rothko

Born in 1903, Marcus Rothkowitz was the youngest child of pharmacist, Jacob Rothkowitz, and his wife, Anna Goldin Rothkowitz, in the Russian city of Dvinsk (today Daugavpils, Latvia). Dvinsk, at the time in the Jewish Pale of Settlement, was a hotbed of Jewish radicalism. The Pale was then inhabited by five million Jews confined there by the Tsar at a time when thousands of Polish Jews were crossing the border into Russia seeking work. Rothko’s father was the stereotype of the leftwing Jewish intellectual, who presided over a family with an “intense commitment to politics and education.”[6] He initially preferred secular education for his children, and political over religious involvement. According to Rothko, his father’s relation to formal religion was openly oppositional: “My father was a militant social democrat of the Jewish party, the Bund, which was the social democracy of that time. He was profoundly Marxist and violently anti-religious.”[7]

That this was chiefly an anti-Christian, rather than anti-religious, impulse is revealed by the fact he returned to the Orthodox Jewish fold after Marcus’s birth in response to anti-Jewish violence which followed the failed Revolution of 1905. While no “pogroms” were ever visited on the Jews of Dvinsk, the town witnessed occasional incidents where Jews were targeted as sympathizers of the Social Democratic and other revolutionary parties. In 1905, according to Baal-Teshuva, the young Rothko’s “hometown was under the blanket surveillance of the Tsarist secret police. Jews were the usual victims of reprisals whenever the Cossacks, the loyal followers of the Tsarist state, came into the town to break up revolutionary uprisings.” Jews living in the environs of Dvinsk “lived in constant terror of pogroms and massacres. The air was filled with slogans like ‘Kill the Jews to Save Russia.’ This was the atmosphere in which Rothko grew up.”[8]

Despite the fact no pogroms occurred in Dvinsk, Rothko claimed to “remember the local Cossacks indulging in their favorite activity — beating up Jews.” He repeatedly told “likely embellished stories that he would wear a backpack to avoid getting hit by the stones the children of Dvinsk threw at him in the streets,” and that a Cossack who had come to repress demonstrations in the city had “struck him in the face with a whip.”[9]

Rothko later even claimed to recall “dug-up pits in the forests around Dvinsk, where the Cossacks buried Jewish victims they had kidnapped and murdered. These images always plagued him mentally, and he says they exercised a certain influence on his painting.”[10] Baal-Teshuva forgives Rothko these obvious untruths, contending it’s likely “that the child heard adults talking about the pogroms and massacres elsewhere, and in his memory ended up mixing up these stories with his own memories of the nearby woods.”[11] Acknowledging that some critics have happily run with these falsehoods, he observes how they have “gone so far as to say this explains his preference for rectangular forms in his late works, as a formal echo of the grave.”[12]

Rothkowitz family portrait in Dvinsk 1912 (Marcus second from the right)

In response to the economic and political insecurities of life in the Pale, Marcus’s father migrated to the United States in 1910. Only in 1913, when Marcus was ten years old, did the rest of the family move to America. Despite the supposed hazards of life in the Pale, Rothko “referred often to the ‘terrible experience’ of having been torn away from his homeland against his will.”[13] It was certainly not the gentile culture of America that attracted the waves of Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe, but only the relatively advantageous conditions created by American economic growth. “They came to America’s shores,” notes Muller, “motivated not by religion but in spite of it, their more orthodox leaders being inclined to warn them against the dangers of godless and goyish America.”[14] A massive influx of 2.3 million Jews arrived at Ellis Island between 1881 and 1920.

The Rothkowitz family spoke Hebrew, Russian and Yiddish and therefore fit well into their new surroundings. South Portland in Oregon where they settled (which was dubbed “Little Odessa”), provided an environment “very much as we think of a shtetl” where one could go for years “speaking Yiddish, Russian, or Polish without having to learn a word of English.”[15] Beginning in Dvinsk and then in Portland, his father decided Marcus would have a strict religious education. He was sent to a cheder, the religious school run by a synagogue, starting at the age of five, and was subject to a strict and tiring routine: praying, reading and translation of Hebrew texts, and rote memorization of Talmudic law.[16]

Rothko’s parents saw no contradiction in bringing up their son as an Orthodox Jew, a Zionist, and a Communist. This is quite in keeping with Kevin MacDonald’s observation that “within Russian Jewish communities, the acceptance of radical political ideology often coexisted with messianic forms of Zionism as well as intense commitment to Jewish nationalism and religious and cultural separatism, and many individuals held various and often rapidly changing combinations of these ideas.”[17]

After the family had achieved a degree of economic security in Portland, they joined local chapters of radical movements. Marcus avidly participated in discussions on current affairs and argued “skilfully for the right of workers to strike, or for general access to contraception. His entire family was in favour of the Russian Revolution, as Rothko later said.”[18] This was, of course, very typical, with Jewish historian Norman Cantor noting how “In the first half of the twentieth century, Marxist-Leninist communism ran like an electromagnetic lightning flash through Jewish societies from Moscow to Western Europe, the United States and Canada, gaining the lifelong adherence of brilliant, passionately dedicated Jewish men and women.”[19]

Another “Jewish Genius” Gets Stung by the WASPS

Rothko was, according to Schama, very much one of these brilliant Jewish men who, despite his Orthodox Jewish education, was “no Jewish Trappist, but a much more recognizable type (at least to me): loquacious, exuberant, hot-tempered, deeply immersed in literature and history.” While the Orthodox Judaism in which Rothko was schooled was not directly expressed in his later art, Schama insists that “once you’ve done cheder — Hebrew school — it never really goes away, however much you try to banish it; nor did it for Marcus. He was what everyone would call, with smiles, both admiring and pitying, a chocom — a know-it-all. And what do chochoms do if they weren’t going to be rabbis?”[20] He was, Schama insists, “just your super-educated, ungainly, sentimental Jew. In the grip of mighty ideas, he was desperate to tell you all about them, fidgeting on the sofa and waving his arms all around. A big heart and a big mouth to match — you know the type.”[21]

After his Orthodox Jewish education, Rothko, at the age of fourteen, attended Lincoln High School in Portland where “he finally experienced his first true encounter with the non-Jewish world, as only 10 percent of the nine hundred students were Jewish.” There he excelled academically and was a passionate debater for the radical cause. Cohen-Solal admires the way “the diligent student from Lincoln High grew into a passionate young intellectual” who “bluntly decided to confront tradition.”[22] Around this time he went to hear “‘Red’ Emma Goldman lay into capitalism and sing the praises of the Russian Revolution.”[23] Despite his avowed support for the Bolshevik Revolution, Rothko resented the fact that anyone at Lincoln High School who “had a name ending in ‘off’ or ‘ski’ is taboo and branded a Bolshevik.” He and his Jewish friends also begrudged the “control over student organizations exercised by the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant youngsters.”[24]

Rothko was passionately drawn to the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and Emma Goldman at a time of rising ethnocentrism and growing hostility to Jewish immigration among White Americans. In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan, inactive since the Reconstruction era, revived in the South, and in 1916, Madison Grant defended his racial history theory in The Passing of the Great Race. Rothko saw disturbing parallels between the respective goyim of his old and new countries, especially at the time of Leo Frank’s lynching in 1915, when he observed in a poem that:

Those primitive barbarous people,
They live again in my blood,
And I feel myself bound to the past
By invisible chains.[25]

American entry into World War One in 1917 inspired nationalist demonstrations among Americans who believed their country had no interest in the conflict. The majority of them also, as mentioned, opposed mass immigration, and Congress passed three successive, highly restrictive, immigration laws: the Immigration Act of 1917, which introduced a literacy test; the Emergency Quota Act of 1921; and the National Origins Act of 1924. Such laws were deeply distressing to Jews like Rothko who wanted the country kept open to mass Jewish immigration.

Schama tells us that Rothko was “scholarship material, and won a place at Yale [in 1921] before the Ivy League decided they were about to be inundated by clever Jews and imposed admission quotas.” Despite his admission to Yale, “Rothko felt the sting of the WASPS all the same. If they couldn’t actually evict the talky-smart kikes, ‘those people,’ they could at least make it hard for them to stick around.”[26] Baal-Teshuva claims Rothko and his fellow Jewish students soon discovered the difficulties of gaining social acceptance in a setting where “the majority of generally affluent White Anglo-Saxon Protestants were contemptuous of the Jewish minority.”[27] Exactly how these WASP students were supposed (or even remotely likely) to embrace a group who feted Emma Goldman, were deeply hostile to their people and culture, and longed for the day when a violent revolution would consign them and their kind to the dustbin of history, is unclear. The more desperately the Jews wanted to “climb the social ladder, the more panic-stricken the others became at the idea of being invaded.”[28]

Rothko while at Yale

At the end of a year spent studying the history of philosophy and psychology, Rothko had achieved only mediocre results, and his scholarship was rescinded and replaced with a student loan. Rothko biographer Annie Cohen-Solal indignantly asks:

How could a young man of eighteen years—the image of a 1920s intellectual, with a high forehead, an intense gaze behind round glasses, and a combed-back mass of wavy black hair—who entered with such enthusiasm into Yale, this temple of knowledge, so severely flounder there? Why would this voracious student, craving intellectual debates, so confident in his abilities after a string of successes in Portland, completely fail to find his place at this elite university?[29]

Her predictable answer: the ubiquitous anti-Semitism Rothko supposedly confronted at a Yale dominated by an “inaccessible club of young WASPs.”[30] Cohen-Solal claims that Rothko quickly became a pariah after his arrival in New Haven, and was “stigmatized precisely because he was bright.” He quickly learned that “the Yale social system was based more on breeding than on merit,” while also discovering “the cynicism and hypocrisy of the caste-based micro-society that sought to protect and reproduce itself, in particular by excluding new, upwardly mobile immigrants who, in those years of rampant nationalism, were deemed threatening to the system.”[31] By thwarting his entry into its exclusive society, Cohen-Solal accuses Yale of having unforgivably “hampered the development of the identity of the young prodigy from Dvinsk.”[32]

Rothko lived off-campus with relatives in New Haven, and launched a radical underground newspaper called The Yale Saturday Evening Post “which took aim at the college’s teaching methods and fetish for prestige.”[33] He discovered his artistic calling by chance. One day, in 1923, he visited a friend studying drawing at the Art Students League and decided “It is the life for me.” He dropped out of Yale after his second year, and moved to New York where he took some art courses. According to Cohen-Solal, it was little wonder he elected to become a painter: “Socially, he was a rebel who, after enduring a series of setbacks, had developed a precocious political awareness as well as a desire for revenge. To pursue a career in art meant, for him, joining a professional group of outcasts with which he could identify.”[34] Rothko would return to Yale 46 years later—when the WASPs had been overthrown and his own ethnic group was firmly in charge—to receive an honorary degree.

Rothko relocated to New York in 1925 and remained there for the rest of his life, becoming involved with Jewish institutions and close to various Jewish artists. He enrolled in the New School of Design where Arshile Gorky (not Jewish) became one of his instructors and cubist artist Max Weber, a fellow Russian Jew, became one of his mentors. In 1928, he was invited to participate in a group show at New York’s Opportunity Gallery, with Lou Harris and Milton Avery — a self-taught painter connected to Brooklyn’s Jewish community through his wife — who mentored various Jewish artists including Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, Joseph Solman, and Louis Schanker.[35] Rothko also gained experience by drawing maps and illustrations for the Graphic Bible by Lewis Browne, a retired rabbi from Portland who was a best-selling author. When he saw he wasn’t credited for these works, he sued Browne for $20,000 in damages. In the end, he lost the trial.[36]

Early Rothko painting: Woman and Cat (1933)

Despite all this activity, when the Wall Street crash came in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, Rothko had little to show for his decade in New York. He was exhibited but rarely sold, and when it did, it was not a living. Between 1928 and 1939, one exhibition followed the next, but his works—oils, watercolors, and paintings on paper—sold poorly. In the meantime he had married Edith Sachar, “bright and Jewish, whom he had met at a progressive summer camp at Lake George in the Adirondacks: downing dialectical materialism, Freud and Cubism along with the weak coffee.”[37]

Go to Part 2.


[1] Klaus Ottmann, The Essential Mark Rothko (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 8. 

[2] Klaus Ottmann, The Essential Mark Rothko (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2003), 8.

[3] Simon Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, BBC TV Series, Great Britain, 2006.

[4] Annie Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, Toward the Light in the Chapel (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 207.

[5] 78

[6] J.E.B, Breslin, Mark Rothko: A Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 14.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid., 19-20.

[9] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 15.

[10] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art TV Series.

[11] Jacob Baal-Teshuva, Rothko (Cologne, Germany: Taschen, 2009), 19-20.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ottmann, Essential Mark Rothko, 17.

[14] Jerry Z. Muller, J.Z. (2010) Capitalism and the Jews (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 96.

[15] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 26.

[16] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 20.

[17] Kevin MacDonald, The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth‑Century Intellectual and Political Movements, (Westport, CT: Praeger, Revised Paperback edition, 2001), 82.

[18] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 23.

[19] Norman Cantor, The Sacred Chain – The History of the Jews (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 281.

[20] Simon Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, BBC Books, London: BBC Books, 2006), 401-2.

[21] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art TV Series.

[22] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 35; 30.

[23] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, 402.

[24] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 30

[25] Ibid., 38.

[26] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, 402.

[27] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 23.

[28] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 45.

[29] Ibid., 39.

[30] Ibid., 45.

[31] Ibid., 42-3.

[32] Ibid., 43.

[33] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 23.

[34] Cohen-Solal, Mark Rothko, 56

[35] Ibid., 57.

[36] Baal-Teshuva, Rothko, 24.

[37] Schama, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, 405.