Commentary Magazine


On the Horizon: Who's Superstitious?

For its second appearance, this new department devoted to “occasional” and more or less informal comment on events and cultural developments offers: a report by KURT LIST on the latest work (not yet publicly performed) of Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps our greatest living composer, and regarded by many critics as the creator of a unique synthesis of the specifically Jewish in form and feeling with the most fruitful tendencies in modem music; and a sceptical note by Irving Kristol on a recent attempt to translate anthropological findings into inter-group understanding via modem advertising techniques. Schoenberg’s cantata will have its world premiere over the French radio on December 13, under the direction of René Leibowitz. Dr. List is a composer as well as a critic; the latest performance of his compositions, by the Manhattan Wind Quintet, took place in New York in March of this year. He is editor of the magazine Listen and an editor of Bomart Music Publications, publishers of many modem scores. Mr. Kristol is an assistant editor of COMMENTARY.

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Robert Ingersoll once caused a public commotion by defying God, if he existed, to strike him dead on the spot. To the chagrin of the pious, his challenge was ignored and he continued blithely on his atheistic way. However, on July 21, 1899 he did at long last die. Each man drew the moral that best pleased him, and it would seem that, at the very least, the experiment was inconclusive.

This has not deterred the National Committee of Thirteen Against Superstition and Fear from once again defying the supernatural powers-that-be (or that are not). On Friday, August 13, the Committee celebrated its second anniversary by launching the First American Exhibition on Superstition, Prejudice, and Fear at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The exhibit lasted thirteen days, of course.

To enter the exhibit at the press preview, I passed under a cloud of open umbrellas and came face to face with a giant cake sporting thirteen lit candles. Against a nearby pillar, the photographers were taking shots of a young boy grimly poised over a carefully assembled pile of shattered mirrors with hammer in hand. At the photographers’ request, he laughed hysterically for about three minutes while he was “shot” from various angles. Since he had not so much as touched the mirrors, why should he worry?

The first display to catch the eye was a collection of nightmarish sketches by John Vassos, illustrating potamophobia (fear of running water), phagophobia (fear of swallowing), batophobia (fear of falling objects), climacophobia (fear of stairways), as well as more banal afflictions like necrophobia (fear of the dead) and agoraphobia (fear of open spaces). It was a most awesome spectacle, though its significance was not exactly obvious. Apparently the Committee frowned upon anyone’s being afraid of the dead, though it had absolutely no constructive suggestions on that score. It also seemed to be displeased at anyone’s being scared by stairways (on which 22.9% of all household accidents take place) or falling objects (bombs and the like were not excepted). The idea was to get all this nonsense out of your head and purify yourself for healthy living (where?). Despite this drawback, the display drove home its lesson and scared more people into a fear of phobias they had never heard of than one might have thought possible in this superstitious age.

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From superstition to prejudice is, according to the Committee, practically no step at all, and posters warned: “A black cat can’t hurt you—superstition and prejudice will” and “Superstition is ignorance—prejudice is a curse.” To assist the psychological effect, there was a garish painting of a witch doctor pointing to a scapegoat, illustrations from the book The Races of Mankind by the anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Gene Weltfish, and more exhibits.

The posters and exhibits made their point with commendable frankness: the root of prejudice is that people think that other people are different, whereas, as everyone should know and as science demonstrates, other people are really the same. I could not help thinking how extremely fortunate it is that science is able to prove that there are no “racial instincts” which justify exclusion or oppression, and that the idea of democracy has its sanction in biologic fact. This called to mind another political system—Nazism, which had sought its justification in biologic fact; happily, its “facts” proved to be worthless as scientific currency. Yet—scientists are always disproving one another with such frightening frequency. . . . The procedure itself, of referring to biology as the court of last appeal, has always seemed to me to be a risky enterprise. Since I am ignorant of biology, it is as an article of faith and morals that I have always been prepared to accept equality of treatment for all men. Faith, it is known, is a weak reed, as are morals. But is science a stronger one? The Committee of Thirteen was quite sure that it is.

One exhibit, especially attractive, demanded: “Can you tell a man’s race or religion by his appearance?” Below the question there was a row of numbered photographs, which could be conveniently identified at a nearby panel. To begin with, there was a photograph of a man, neatly dressed and prosperous-looking, and who had been lit up garishly by the photographer’s flash. He turned out to be a Negro physician, and I would never have guessed it. Then there was a beautiful woman whom I would have sworn to be Rita Hayworth but who was really an “American Jewish girl”; I was pleased but surprised. There was a soldier who was the spit and image of an Italian boy in my old platoon; but the panel told me flatly that he was a Nisei. My only consolations were the Irish lass from Galway county and the Russian Caucasian girl, neither of whom could have been anything else, and whom I spotted right off.

In other exhibits, there were snapshots of Chinese and Negro Jews, and if I had met them on the East Side, I would have passed them by without a Shalom. A poster read: “There are dark men and light men—short and tall men in every race”; it bore sketches of three men in bathing suits, one short and white, one tall and dark, and the third dumpy, middling, and muddy. I thought penitently of all the occasions when I and my friends (including Negroes) had spoken glibly as if Negroes were “dark” and white men “light.” The poster which most ruthlessly revealed the aberrations that lay in wait for those who have neglected their biology was one in which a factory worker whispered: “I wouldn’t work next to a guy with freckles.”

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Outside, breathing in the gasoline-scented air of Central Park, I closed my eyes and bid nostalgic farewell to a world that knew not the redeeming truths of biology. Where Jews wore payes and garbardine coats and looked Jewish. Where Japanese ate rice with chopsticks and spoke Japanese (real Japanese, which is not just like American only different). Where Negroes had dark skins. Where Jewish girls looked, occasionally, like Molly Picon and were likely to be named Ruth or Rachel. Where scientific anthropology had not yet proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that everyone is exactly like everyone else, despite appearances. And where the only rule that told people how to behave was that superstitious old saw: “Love thy fellow man as thyself”—even if he is different, even if he is very different, and even if we don’t know.

We have progressed mightily since those primitive days.

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