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Whatever your views on “cancel culture,” one thing is certain: Search-and-rescue missions on behalf of the disappeared can take strange forms. Witness a 2020 New Yorker essay that was published online under the title “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?” The question suggested the possibility that something as vile as racism might be calibrated—and that O’Connor’s case had moved from the verdict to the sentencing phase. Was she un-racist enough that “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” could still be taught in English classes, or was she so racist that all copies of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” should be collected and destroyed?
But if you read past the title, the essay—by Paul Elie, a senior fellow at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs—turns out to be excellent, a model of the form. It neither shies away from an accounting of O’Connor’s sin nor treats her stories and essays as diminished by that sin. Elie invites us to do something difficult: to hold both the artist and the art in our minds at once.
It’s a tall order, because her opinions are vile. “You know, I’m an integrationist by principle & a segregationist by taste,” she wrote to a friend. “I don’t like negroes. They all give me a pain and the more of them I see, the less and less I like them.” As for James Baldwin, she said that he is “very ignorant but never silent.” James Baldwin—ignorant! The statement is preposterous. “My question is usually, would this person be endurable if white. If Baldwin were white nobody would stand him a minute.”
Elie gives no quarter to the often-made argument that all of this is explained—and therefore mitigated—by the time and place in which she was born: “All the contextualizing produces a seesaw effect, as it variously cordons off the author from history, deems her a product of racist history, and proposes that she was as oppressed by that history as anybody else was.”
It’s loathsome; she is loathsome. But Elie turns the coin over and over in his hands, at every turn complicating the story. He makes a powerful summation: O’Connor’s words “don’t belong to the past, or to the South,” he writes. “They belong to the author’s body of work; they help show us who she was.”
The New Yorker recently published an essay about a similarly complicated writer, Alice Walker. This one is by Lauren Michele Jackson, an assistant professor at Northwestern and a contributing writer at the magazine. The occasion is the publication of Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, a collection of Walker’s diary entries from 1965 to 2000, about which Jackson writes elegantly and often persuasively: “Pain, joy, spells of depression, unease, engagement, even disaffection—all are material. They’ll feed the writings; they’ll sustain the readings.”
The publication of a writer’s journals provides an opportunity to combine an assessment of the art with an accounting of the life, and the essay’s somewhat perplexing online title—“Alice Walker’s Journals Depict a Writer Restless on Her Laurels”—lets us know we’ll be hearing about Walker’s many achievements. The Color Purple was such an enormous success—the recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, with more than 1 million copies sold in the first three years—that it tends to overshadow the rest of her work. But Walker is a prolific writer, with an oeuvre composed of novels, short stories, essays, and poetry.
Speaking of Walker’s poetry, here are two lines from her 2017 poem “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud”:
Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews, and not only
That, but to enjoy it?
“How Anti-Semitic is Alice Walker?” The New Yorker might have asked. The straightforward answer is very, very anti-Semitic.
As my Atlantic colleague Yair Rosenberg has reported, since 2012 Walker has promoted the ideas of a repugnant person, David Icke, the author of a book called And the Truth Shall Set You Free. The book, Rosenberg writes, “mentions the word ‘Jewish’ 241 times and the name ‘Rothschild’ 374 times. These citations are not compliments.” Icke suggests that the Jewish people helped pay for the Holocaust themselves (if it even happened; he thinks schoolchildren should be encouraged to debate this). He says that the KKK is secretly Jewish, and he seems to be a big fan of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
As recently as 2018, Walker praised And the Truth Shall Set You Free, during an interview with The New York Times. “In Icke’s books,” she said, “there is the whole of existence, on this planet and several others, to think about. A curious person’s dream come true.” Who knows how many people she has introduced to this terrible thing.
Walker is a fierce critic of the state of Israel, and has refused to allow a Hebrew translation of The Color Purple. She has rejected charges of anti-Semitism as attempts to silence her support for the Palestinians, but the argument that Walker’s issue is only with the Israeli government, not with the Jewish people, is specious. In that poem, she describes the Palestinians as just the latest examples of the victims of an “ancient” evil perpetrated “with impunity, and without conscience, / By a Chosen people.” This is hate.
The New Yorker essay is 4,000 words long, and only a few sentences, in the final two paragraphs, concern Walker’s anti-Semitism. Jackson presents And the Truth Shall Set You Free almost as a bit of sci-fi: “Icke’s thinking includes the theory that mankind has unwittingly been ruled by an intergalactic race of reptilians since antiquity.” Entirely true—but try to guess who most of the reptiles are. As for the troubling fact of Walker’s anti-Semitism, Jackson offers a Freudian explanation: “Having grown up in a place where conspiracies, racial and sexual, were daily realities to be reckoned with, Walker may have developed a belated hunger for more.” Weirder still is this sentence: “Walker, a proper boomer, seems also to have been diving deep into the brackish waters of YouTube.” The “OK Boomer” defense.
I didn’t know exactly which brackish waters she had been diving into, but I turned once again to “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty to Study the Talmud”:
I recommend starting with YouTube. Simply follow the trail of “The
Talmud” as its poison belatedly winds its way
Into our collective consciousness.
I have no intention of following that recommendation, but I know that videos that describe the Talmud as “poison” aren’t so much “brackish water.” Walker does not seem to feel that her beliefs need any defense, let alone apology. As far as I know, she has never backed down from her position. Last year, in the postscript to her new book, she wrote, “I have no regrets.”
Here’s what I don’t understand, in the case of the New Yorker essays and in the broader sense: Of all the forms of hatred in the world, why is anti-Semitism so often presented as somehow less evil than the others? Alice Walker’s beliefs are every bit as repugnant as Flannery O’Connor’s. Yet even The New Yorker is willing to dismiss them as the consequence of boomerism, of the sorrow and oppression of her youth, of YouTube—as a late-in-life aberration. It is willing to print an assessment of And the Truth Shall Set You Free that describes it as promoting “anti-Semitic crackpottery.” Crackpottery? That’s one way of putting it. I realize now that this phrase includes the only appearance of the term anti-Semitic in the essay. If you didn’t come to this essay with a preexisting understanding of Walker’s hateful ideas, I expect it would be very easy to read these sentences about her beliefs and not really know what they are.
Would The New Yorker publish an article on someone with vile beliefs about gays, for example, and never mention those beliefs until the very end—and then in such a coded way that a reader might miss them altogether?
It wouldn’t and it shouldn’t. So why is hatred of Jews treated so gently—and in The New Yorker of all places? Something is rising, and it’s happening right in front of us, and somehow we are all sleeping through the part when there is still time to step in. Last year, David Baddiel, a Jewish comedian from Britain, wrote a book, Jews Don’t Count, arguing that “a sacred circle is drawn around those whom the progressive modern left are prepared to go into battle for, and it seems as if the Jews aren’t in it.” Why? “There are lots of answers. But the basic one, underpinning all others, is that Jews are the only objects of racism who are imagined—by the racists—as both low and high status … somehow both sub-human and humanity’s secret masters.”
I’m also a “proper Boomer,” born in 1961, 16 years after the end of the Second World War. And like a proper Boomer, I read Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl as a teenager. The opening entries made the deepest impression on me—how joyous Anne’s life still was. The book begins with the occasion of her 13th birthday—the presents and flowers from her parents, the plate of cookies she baked and shared with her classmates, the weekend viewing of a Rin Tin Tin film. But already the yellow stars have been sewn on, the curfews implemented. The danger is rising, rising.
The Franks had two daughters, Anne and her talented older sister, Margot. The family was forced into hiding when Margot was “called up.” I didn’t know what that phrase meant. It meant that she received a letter ordering her to leave her home and report to one of the camps. I had an older sister too, and she was also the smarter, more patient one. What if someone came for her? What would we do?
The Franks went into hiding, and almost made it to safety: They lived in the secret annex for two years, and weren’t discovered until August of 1944—less than a year before victory in Europe. The family was sent to Auschwitz, and then the sisters were moved to Bergen-Belsen. Within a few months they died there, and neither of them was ever again seen on the face of this Earth.
Never let anyone—not David Icke, not Alice Walker, not the editors of The New Yorker, not anyone, ever—try to convince you that this hateful ideology is less serious than any other.