Corfu, and the nature of hate
How many Jews were on that yacht? And who cares? Sadly, there are plenty who do.
The JC comment editor and I were discussing this week's column. And we said the same thing to each other at the same time. Which was that we hoped that the yacht-owning oligarch Oleg Deripaska was not Jewish. Nat Rothschild is legendarily Jewish, Peter Mandelson is half-Jewish (his father worked for the JC and in that sense was far more distinguished than the son), and George Osborne may not be Jewish but his Conservative executive friend, Andrew Feldman, has a yiddisher name. All that, in these darkening times, is enough to keep a hundred crank websites busy for a month.That is why the comment editor and I were concerned.
Perhaps we shouldn't have been. Who cares, apart from the spotty herberts of the anti-Jew cyberspace? These are enlightened days, in which prejudice is banished to the margins, and a man (or woman) is assessed, Martin Luther King-like, purely on his (or her) personal character. Let Oleg Deripaska turn out to be 10 Jews, and it's no skin off our beautifully proportioned noses.
You can tell from the leaden irony of the previous paragraph that I am about to disabuse readers of an illusion from which they were not suffering anyway, given how paranoid they almost certainly already are.
et me start with Mandelson the snake. The veteran cartoonist of The Guardian, Steve Bell, is a genius and, as a genius, is indulged in his newspaper, and permitted to develop over time a series of conceits about the people who inhabit our public world. These conceits are Bell's own; they emerge from inside his imagination, rather than from any objective view of his targets.
So, in Bell's brain, Peter Mandelson is a gigantic snake; a snake that insinuates itself everywhere, coiling around the bodies of its victims. It is a stereotype that plays to certain cultural depictions of the serpent - that it is silently poisonous (though Bell's Mandelson is simultaneously a constrictor), cunning and malevolent. Whether the incredibly impetuous and emotional Lord Mandelson genuinely fits this stereotype is a secondary question. The point is that Bell's representation is recognisable.
Except for one thing. Bell's Mandelson-serpent is not a scaly, shiny snake, but an incredibly pink, fleshy, almost tumescent, snake. In fact, Bell's Mandelson is a gigantic prehensile body part, and one which pops up in unexpected and unwelcome places.
Why? You don't exactly have to buy the full Freudian package to know what a snake signifies, let alone a semi-erect pink one. And, of course, the other thing we all know about Lord Mandelson is that he is gay. I don't think it is particularly fanciful to see Bell's Mandelson as a gay-rape fantasy, in which Bell shares his unconscious fears that the homosexuals are after his (and our) vulnerable openings. This is the artist not as conscious homophobe, but as a sufferer from homophobia.
Are you still there? Then let me drag you back to Corfu. The penile snake is sojourning with the wealthy, one of whom is Mr Rothschild. And here is the sub-Bunteresque figure of Daily Mail sketch-writer Quentin Letts, writing on the subject of Greek coastal encounters, and concluding: "For the moment it looks as though the troubles created by Lord Mandelson and his cronies might have peaked. Were I a Sunday newspaper editor, I'd be asking my dirt-diggers to aim their trowels at that young money-changer Rothschild and the BBC's Labour-raised Robert Peston."
Letts's "Labour-raised" is a technique for suggesting that Peston (whose dad is a Labour economist) is biased, without actually supplying any evidence. But "money-changer"? This is an archaic expression. Over at my favourite political website, Harry's Place, there was an instant, though tentative charge of antisemitism.
The most high-profile money-changers, of course, are those slung out of the Temple by Jesus in the New Testament. Those money-changers were Jewish, but then so was Jesus. The trouble is, in old-school depictions of Jesus, he is a kind of premature non-Jew, surrounded by strangely persistent Jews. Being anti-money-changing is one way in which he establishes his non-Jewishness.
Usury is the most common charge against Jews, for historical reasons we understand. Enter "Rothschild" and "money-changers" in Google and the second entry gives you the antisemitic website Real Jew News and the pre-Corfu entry: "Putin's Purge of the Rothschild Money Changers" - in which the good Russian defeats the grasping Zionist oligarchs.
How much of this did Letts know? Probably not a lot. My guess, and it may be charitable, given the Daily Mail's penchant for bullying and scapegoating, is that Letts isn't antisemitic so much as suffering from antisemitism. That's some comfort, but not much.
Oh, and as far as I can tell, Oleg Deripaska isn't Jewish, though it really shouldn't matter.