Thursday 17 August 2017

Kevin Myers, the Nature of Anti-Semitism and the Media’s schadenfreude

Kevin Myers’ Sunday Times profile picture (Source: Youtube image grab)

On the 30th of July 2017, the Irish edition of the Sunday Times published a column by veteran journalist Kevin Myers, entitled “Sorry ladies — equal pay has to be earned”. The ensuing reaction has been a spectacle of extraordinary proportions, constituting one of the bigger media stories of 2017.

Myers was fired from his post as chief columnist with the Irish Sunday Times, within a few hours, after an outraged online response in Britain, and attacks in the media. Some British news outlets, such as the Guardian went as far as to label him a ‘Holocaust denier’, while Danny Cohen, a prior executive at the BBC, demanded that the Sunday Times prevent Myers from working for any ‘News UK’ publication again. Lionel Barber, the Financial Times’ editor, claimed that the article represented an expression of “undiluted anti-Semitism and misogyny”. The Irish media was no less hostile, and a rolling series of attacks would ensue over the next two weeks, while a number of senior politicians also lambasted his article.

Anti-Semitic Stereotyping

Ireland’s main Jewish community group, the Jewish Representative Council of Ireland, issued the most notable public statement in support of Kevin Myers, claiming that to call him “either an anti-Semite or a Holocaust denier is an absolute distortion of the facts”, adding that Myers has done “more than any other Irish journalist” to write “about details of the Holocaust over the last three decades.”

The Irish Times would however publish an op-ed by Caryna Camerino, a Canadian Jewish woman who has lived in Dublin for approximately a decade. The publication of the article appears to have been motivated as a harsh retort directed at both Myers, and the Jewish Representative Council’s defence of the journalist, which elements of the media treated in a seemingly incredulous manner. Camerino’s attack focused on biological sex: her “lady brain” could not understand the assertions of these “men” at the Council, and that they do not represent her. She did not address the strength of her own connections to Ireland’s Jewish community, other than to acknowledge that she is not religiously practicing, nor if she was aware of any substantive dissent.

Camerino latterly claims in her op-ed that she is a “real Jew” with real feelings, etc. Although the remark is not closely connected to her attack on the Jewish Council, the article ultimately presents an inference that the Council are somehow not truly entitled to express their opinions, in view of her trenchant attack which amounts to little more than an ad hominem, while, in a stark dichotomy, she, as an individual and authentically Jewish person, possesses that right. She comes close to making that point outright when criticising the Council for not giving “any recognition of Jewish diversity, humanity and individuality — the very things that get erased by anti-Semitic generalisations”.

Camerino is of course justified in claiming that she is firmly and unconditionally entitled to express her opinion, as that is very much the right of each individual under any truly free democratic state, but she cannot justly insist that others have no such right to speak on behalf of their community when they have been afforded the authority to advocate on such a collective’s behalf for quite some time. The head Council representative, Maurice Cohen, stated that they had consulted quite widely on the matter, and appear to have received little negative reaction from the people they represent.

The question as to whether or not Myers endorsed an anti-Semitic stereotype in his final Sunday Times article is perhaps not as clear-cut as it may at first seem. Myers stated in his typically combative manner:
“I note that two of the best-paid women presenters in the BBC — Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz, with whose, no doubt, sterling work I am tragically unacquainted — are Jewish. Good for them.
Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity. I wonder, who are their agents? If they’re the same ones that negotiated the pay for the women on the lower scales, then maybe the latter have found their true value in the marketplace.”
Seth Barrett-Tillman, a lecturer in law at Maynooth University, asserted that Myers made a factual statement that was praiseworthy, and which could be tested for its veracity, in an RTE interview with Sean O’Rourke. By contrast, Julia Neuberger, Britiain’s first female Rabbi, described the assertion in Myers’ column as “absolutely gratuitous, not cleverly done, it’s blatant racism”, adding that “you have to give people a chance to rethink their own attitudes.” Maurice Cohen disagreed, arguing that Myers had “inadvertently stumbled into an antisemitic trope”.

Myers is a particularly intelligent and educated individual, who appears to be knowledgeable on the topic of anti-Semitism. He clearly tapped into a stereotype that is often used as a means of detraction, but the context in which it is presented is genuinely peculiar. The stereotype appears to have been applied as a means of praise toward Jewish people, rather than as an expression of hostility. He argued that individuals should take proper recompense for their labours and talents.

While Camerino suggested that Myers traded in negative characterisations of Jewishness, and in anti-Semitic conspiracism, Myers did not appear to make out that Jewish people are greedy and controlling in the two relevant paragraphs, which were otherwise quite sarcastic, if not genuinely unpleasant, although it might be argued that this contrast is merely a façade, and that the journalist traded on an undercurrent of the sentiment of Jewish greed to generate a reaction from the reader.

Stereotypes can sometimes feature some level of truth since cultures frequently diverge, and talents quite often get directed into different professions and other varying spheres of activity. Stereotypes nonetheless generalise and can act to typecast minorities. They can be damaging and potentially dangerous, even when presented in a positive manner. However, Camerino denied Myers’ subsequent claim that Jewish people achieve a great deal in certain areas of endeavour, which he said that he admired — a sentiment which seems genuine because he has occasionally expressed similar views for some time. Myers elaborated in a BBC interview, after the controversy erupted, stating that Jewish financial institutions historically did better because they were more trustworthy. Camerino’s claim would seem to be questionable since it is hardly a secret that Jewish people do achieve a level of notable prestige in academia, health and finance, and she unnecessarily cast Myers’ philosemitism as anti-Semitism in its own right.

Some critics have argued that motivation matters little when such an author trades in damaging stereotypes. Rabbi Neuberger sought the opportunity to explain to Myers why such sentiments are so offensive. However, few would not accept that motivation denotes levels of blameworthiness, where accidental wrongdoing is usually treated very differently to acts of malice. Legal systems also make a distinction between such acts. If Myers is guilty of negligence, where he should have known of the harm of the stereotype, as Neuberger seems to have suggested, then that assertion contrasts to no small extent with claims that he is an outright bigot/anti-Semite.

If Myers did intend to trade on negative stereotyping then he was crossing an ethical boundary but the paragraphs are ultimately too vague to make a firm judgement on the matter. Occasionally, anti-Semites proffer a backhanded compliment as a prelude to an attack, but in Myers’ case it did not occur. In cases were such descriptions lead to anti-Semitic expression, conspiracies are invoked to suggest that Jewish people control a given area of industry, that they run a “cabal” for their own mutual benefit, which not only excludes non-Jewish people from betterment in the same field, but is used for nefarious means and excessive gain.

Myers’ remark ultimately constitutes an anti-Semitic stereotype, and was problematic without any clarification because it could be seen as an endorsement. It leaves Myers justly open to criticism, but the surrounding contextual indeterminacy should have mitigated against such an intensive reaction, because it was not expressed by a person with a notable prior record of hostility toward the Jewish people — quite the opposite in fact. Given Myers’ prior record of support for certain Jewish issues, he should be afforded the benefit of the doubt when claiming that the comment was not motivated by hostility. However, the controversy began in Britain where few would be familiar with Myers’ record of philosemitism.

The equal pay debate

Kevin Myers’ by now infamous Sunday Times 30th July article focused on the row over the diverging sums paid to male and female performers and presenters at the BBC. He argued that men tend receive better remuneration than women because they frequently work harder, and take fewer days off work due to medical issues. He asked:
“Is it because men are more charismatic performers? Because they work harder? Because they are more driven? Possibly a bit of each… men usually do work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant.”
The National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) harshly attacked the Sunday Times’ subsequent apology for running the offending Myers article, arguing that:
“The article clearly displayed discriminatory views on both gender and religious grounds, yet the apology today made no reference to the misogynistic and sexist views expressed in the article. The apology presented the Sunday Times with the opportunity to redress the views expressed, and the offence caused to women. This opportunity was clearly not taken. By its omission, in our view the apology gives licence to further similar sexist views to be expressed in its newspaper in the future.”
Numerous studies over the years have found that British men contribute a higher number of work-hours than women although it should be noted that women also take on a greater share of household chores, which nullifies or reverses this discrepancy. The male-female divergence in work hours is echoed in the US and across the world. British studies have also found that women take more sick days from the workplace than men. Such a divergence in work practices will probably have a significant impact on the long-term development of careers.

Whether or not Myers holds misogynist views, his largely factual assertions appear to have caused most offense, but they can be backed up by well-known evidential findings. As such, what the NWCI purports to be “misogynistic and sexist views” are in fact evidence based, even if they can be unpalatable, particularly when advanced with a biting sarcasm.

Kathy Sheridan, an Irish Times columnist, put a hostile spin on the Myers controversy. Sheridan took Myers to task for his attitude to women and feminism. Although Myers has made acidic comments about feminism, he does not appear to have argued for any curtailment of freedoms and opportunities for women. He railed against what he claimed was a misandrist bias in the Irish courts system. He had also objected to the rigid insistence on absolute equality.

When addressing the present controversy, Myers claimed in interviews that equality is not a natural feature of relations, and that people who diverge in terms of biologically sexual orientation have different strengths and weaknesses. Accordingly, there should not be so much emphasis on divergent rates of success and uptake within the various professions. He also denied that he believed women to be inferior to men.

Myers’ claims are offensive to some but they are not without some objective validity in view of the findings of a number of scientific studies. In terms of psychological behaviourism, women diverge more dramatically from men in nations with a high human development index, where policies to ensure equal freedoms and opportunity are in place. Related studies indicate that women focus on spheres of interest that are more socialised than that of men, and hence favour person-orientated occupations, while men focus interest on objects, and display a preference for subjects like science and mathematics. This divergence was again found to be most prevalent in nations that possess a high rating on the developmental index, suggesting that conditions which allow for greater freedom of opportunity bring about an intensified polarisation when it comes to occupations.

These findings have some compatibility with somewhat traditional views on the sexes, although they do not affirm in any way that women are in any way inferior to men. Nonetheless, such studies may make difficult reading for many social theorists, who are committed to the belief that culture, rather than biology, is the principle determinant in the divergences of behaviour between the sexes.

Defining Holocaust denial

On the 4th of March 2009, the Irish Independent published an article (‘I’m a Holocaust denier, but I also believe the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jewish people’), in which Kevin Myers argued that Holocaust deniers, such as Bishop Richard Williamson, should not be punished, and voiced some qualified support for such people. The article was removed from the Independent‘s website on the day that the present controversy exploded.

Myers has been called a Holocaust denier, particularly in the left-wing British media, but others disagree. An in-depth examination of the phenomenon of Holocaust denial reveals that Myers cannot be regarded as a Holocaust denier in any meaningful sense of the term, and that it was applied as a rhetorical device to justify his libertarian stance on freedom of speech.

Myers stated that “there was no holocaust (or Holocaust, as my computer software insists)”, because the majority of “Jewish victims of the Third Reich were not burnt in the ovens in Auschwitz. They were shot by the hundreds of thousands in the Lebensraum of the east, or were worked or starved to death in a hundred other camps, across the Reich.”

Myers also claimed that it was unlikely that exactly six million Jewish people were murdered by the NAZIs but he nonetheless affirmed that it was a particularly substantive genocide, stating that “millions of Jews were murdered”. He claimed:
“I’m a holocaust denier; but I also believe that the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jewish people, as far as their evil hands could reach.”
A person who engages in Holocaust denial claims that there was no systemic and logistically very substantive attempt to exterminate European Jewry. Holocaust deniers will never allow for anything more than a small fraction of the six million that are reliably estimated to have been murdered. They must also necessarily deny the existence of the death camps, often by denying that they were used for systematic killing. This description is in accord with the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) statement on the topic:
“Holocaust denial is discourse and propaganda that deny the historical reality and the extent of the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis and their accomplices…
Holocaust denial may include publicly denying or calling into doubt the use of principal mechanisms of destruction (such as gas chambers, mass shooting, starvation and torture) or the intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people.”
Holocaust deniers tend to present Hitler and the NAZIs in a positive light, and often claim that Hitler never planned to exterminate Jews. Myers stated the opposite in both respects.

Deniers assert that if a Jewish genocide did take place, it resulted in the death of no more than a few tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands, of Jewish people, so that any supposed Holocaust was no more significant than the several other substantive genocides of the era, which would include peoples of Christian and non-Semitic Eastern European religious and racial identities. By attempting to lessen and relativise the unique scale of Jewish suffering, which was fostered by a particularly vicious and non-evidential form of animus that was central to the worldview of National Socialism, where the destruction of German/European Jewry represented a priority for Hitler as stated in 1922, with their persecution commencing as soon as the NAZI party took power in 1933, Holocaust deniers ultimately attempt to negate the unsocial status afforded to anti-Semitic statements, and related conspiracies, in the post-Holocaust period.

Myers questioned the exactness of the Holocaust’s figure of six million dead in his article, to argue that people may be punished for questioning such a figure, and may limit academic endeavour, but still noted that millions were killed. By contrast, Holocaust deniers must fundamentally question the grand scale of the murderous campaign, to present a coherent theory that Jewish people were not singled out for a particular and quite uniquely murderous programme, although it should be remembered that other minorities suffered to some extent in a similar fashion, particularly the Gypsies of Eastern Europe. Myers did not question the NAZIs intent to exterminate European Jewry. He in fact acknowledged that was the very plan of the Third Reich.

However, Myers’ stance is somewhat questionable in other respects. Some historians have estimated that the death toll is slightly less than six million, but have not been branded as ‘Holocaust deniers’ by any party, nor have they been sought by the authorities, while institutions commemorating the terrible episode are not rigid in the assertion that exactly six million people died. Furthermore, Holocaust denial laws tend to be designed to specifically act against the trivialisation of the event and the gross under-representation of the genocide’s scale, rather than to enshrine any sort of exact figure on the death toll that would bind academic study into the future.

Although Myers’ March 2009 article is clearly not anti-Semitic, it is nonetheless problematic. It treated a sensitive subject in a harsh and unnecessarily contentious manner, and made a claim that more Jews were killed by death squads than in the gas installations of the Auschwitz death sub-camps, to point out that the name of the NAZI extermination programme is invalid. Myers stated:
“For if the word is to have any literal validity at all, it must be related to its actual meaning, which comes from the Greek words holos, ‘whole’, and caust, ‘fire’. Most Jewish victims of the Third Reich were not burnt in the ovens in Auschwitz. They were shot by the hundreds of thousands in the Lebensraum of the east, or were worked or starved to death in a hundred other camps, across the Reich.
This programme was begun informally by Nazi armies in 1941, and only took organised form after the Wannsee conference in January 1942. Thus was born one of the most satanic operations in world history, in which millions of Jews were murdered. To be sure, you can use the term holocaust to describe these events, but only as a metaphor.”
Myers’ assertion concerning the modes of genocide is technically correct but rather misleading since there were several other death camps besides Auschwitz, with gassing and crematorium facilities, the mode of murder and disposal to which Myers seems to accord with his definition of the word ‘Holocaust’. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has estimated that almost three million Jewish people were murdered in death and concentration camps, while some were also murdered external to such facilities by gas. While not all those killed in such camps would have been cremated, it clearly was one of the predominant modes of bodily disposal especially after Hitler decided to proceed with the total annihilation of Jewry in December 1941. Its symbolism formed a unique motif for this particular programme of extermination, especially in view of the opposition in Jewish religious law to such burial practices. Myers may still cast such an argument as the use of a ‘metaphor’ but in truth it was much more. The numerous crematoria, and the open fire pits at Treblinka, constituted an elemental part of the NAZIs schema of destruction, which from 1942 were devised to cover up and efficiently dispose of many thousands of people on a daily basis in the camps.

Myers acknowledged in private email correspondence that the tone of the article was ill-judged. He received emails of support from anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, which he denounced. Myers also claims that the article’s headline was written by an editor, as is often the case with publications. To the best of my knowledge, this claim has not been rejected by the Irish Independent.

Myers elaborated, to claim that his defence of Holocaust denial was based on freedom of speech, rather than any particular agreement with the essential tenets of Holocaust denial:
“I’m a holocaust denier; but I also believe that the Nazis planned the extermination of the Jewish people, as far as their evil hands could reach. And because the Nazis lost, the free-speech party won. So, this means that the bishop can believe, and even publicly state, if he wants, that Auschwitz was an ice-cream parlour and the SS was a dance troupe.
That is the nature of free speech. Any one of us should be able to declare any old counter-factual and even offensive nonsense, without being sent to jail, provided we preach hatred for no one. It’s a free and equal world.”
While legitimate concerns can arise over freedom of speech, and Myers is justified in raising the issue, there are also legitimate reasons for the existence of Holocaust denial laws.' The Holocaust is treated differently to other major events in history. Significant numbers of people, and a number of organisations, denied the Third Reich’s criminal actions. They did so for politically motivated reasons rather than due to an innocent scepticism. By attempting to disprove the Holocaust, they invariably endorse further clichéd anti-Semitic conspiracies, often arguing that the story of the Holocaust is part of a plot of the Jews to silence criticism of their activities, to increase their supposedly privileged status, and thereby to increase their power internationally for malefic purposes. The Holocaust is denied to invoke further hatred of this group, and often to legitimise the beliefs of Hitler and the National Socialist movement.

Myers also took issue with the double-standards of the authorities, which tend to ignore Islamic anti-Semitism while prosecuting its Western equivalent. He somewhat paradoxically criticised such beliefs — a stance that no genuine Holocaust deniers would adopt:
“Across Europe, there are countless Islamic madrasahs, in which imams regularly preach hatred for Jews, and where the holocaust is routinely denied. Which member-state of the EU will pursue such conveyors of hate, or seek the extradition of an imam who says that the holocaust was a Zionist hoax?”
… the EU has tolerated the creation of an informal historiographical apartheid. So, on the one hand, a single, eccentric (and possibly deranged) Christian bishop may be hounded for his demented historical beliefs: but on the other, there is a deafening silence over the widespread and virulent distortion of the ‘holocaust’ by Islamic preachers.”
Although some of Myers’ assertions in the March 2009 Irish Independent article may be questioned, the assertions are not motivated by anti-Semitism — in fact quite the contrary if the reader goes beyond the journalist’s astonishingly bombastic claim that he is a Holocaust denier. Myers places freedom of speech above all else, and frequently railed against all sorts of political/media consensuses, which seems to have motivated his defence of Holocaust deniers, such as Bishop Williamson. It is clear that Myers ultimately acted to deny the Holocaust as a rhetorical device, based on two effective technicalities of minor significance, to make a point about freedom of speech and Holocaust Denial laws. This viewpoint appears to have been the reading behind the intent behind Myers’ article at the time, despite the fact that his piece justifiably raised strong objections.

Published at Crethi Plethi.