The recent announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations has elicited a substantial outcry from political activists and assorted celebrities because all of the nominees in the acting categories are white.
Well-known cinematic figures such as Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith (wife of the, um, rather more famous Will Smith, who was not nominated for his role in “Concussion”) have vowed to boycott the awards, as the “lack of diversity” among the nominees (so they argue) incontrovertibly shows that there is institutional racism in the Academy. This has put Chris Rock, slated to host the awards show, in a very awkward position indeed, as he is facing calls to quit his prestigious — and undoubtedly lucrative — gig.
Now, I don’t actually know whether there is any substantial racist sentiment among the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences or not. It’s not like Black actors haven’t won Oscars before, and Hollywood isn’t particularly known as a bastion of extreme right-wing politics, so I would say it doesn’t seem particularly likely. All that notwithstanding, the part of this sort of thing that I think should concern us Israelis is the ease with which this sort of identity politics bean counting (a term I just made up for when percentages and proportions of representation in a given field are counted and held up against an ideal of “complete equality of outcome for all people all the time”) is accepted as proof of institutional bias and bigotry. I think this is a prime example of a trend that is a much bigger deal than it may seem.
I say this because this way of reasoning, this thought pattern, is of a piece with the type of reasoning that makes it basically impossible for a given person to take any position vis-a-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other than a totally anti-Israeli one.
This is the dominant trend among well-meaning intellectuals and media types: You see a statistic that is uneven. You see one group doing better than another group. You see a group that makes up a certain percentage of the population (blacks, Hispanics, Palestinians, women, or whatever) underrepresented in some achievement-based subset of the population (Oscar nominees, highest tax bracket, science and engineering jobs, anything else) and you hold this up as obvious and incontrovertible proof that there is some sinister “system of oppression” operating behind the scenes to prevent members of certain groups from achieving (or being recognized for achieving) enough to get into said subset. You conclude that the only possible cause of this state of affairs is institutional bias. Thus the mere fact that there have not been any black nominees for the acting categories for two straight years is in and of itself proof positive of racism in the Academy.
Of course, taken by itself at face value, this line of reasoning is absurd. The mere fact that there is some inequality of outcome does not itself show that there is inequality of opportunity. What would we expect from a completely race-blind Oscar selection committee (which is surely what we are striving to get to)? Directly proportional representation of all minorities in every category every year? The odds of that happening without external enforcement are basically nil. Wouldn’t you basically expect has been happening (at least over the past 30 years or so)? Most years will see some black actors nominated, sometimes black actors will even be over-represented, like in 2006, and sometimes they will be underrepresented or not represented at all.
Beyond that bit of analysis, even if you do say that considering all of the statistical data it is quite unlikely that you would end up with any two-year span of only white nominees, the more important possibility to consider before deciding that there is institutional bias is that for whatever reason, no black actors deserved a nomination over the past two years, or that it was close enough that none of the performances (and there have been some good ones, to be fair) ended up edging out enough of the performances by white actors for the actual nominations. The point is that it seems like there should be at least some consideration given to any number of possible explanations based on the inherent nature of the dynamics of acting and Oscar nominations, before jumping to the “evil empire of bias imposing unfair results from outside” genre.
While there are more sophisticated statistical arguments to be made that the disparity (this year and historically) is not merely the product of random variation, these are not the arguments that are actually causing the outrage. The average, reasonably intelligent, socially conscious person on the street is convinced that there is a problem by the mere fact that there is indeed a disparity. He does not allow himself to consider that there might be natural inherent reasons why the disparity exists, it must be the social circumstances, namely racism.
One of the things that comes out of all this is that one cannot make an argument against the #Oscsarssowhite furor, or anything like it, without being labeled a racist. Thus it is basically considered illegitimate to even challenge the prevailing narrative in polite company.
I say all of this bodes very ill for Israel, because in this type of analysis, Israel comes off as some horrifying, tyrannical, exploitative regime. If one thinks in this manner and starts from results, from how well Israelis and Palestinians seem to do, one first sees the huge economic disparity between Israel and the Palestinian territories, the difference in the casualty numbers in all of the recent wars with Hamas, etc, and would then automatically decide that it must be because Israel oppresses and exploits the Palestinians mercilessly. Any rejoinder that Israelis or their supporters give–about how this is a ridiculous jump to an unsupported conclusion, and that the simple differences between the cultures and the decisions made in the past by the leaders and the common people are the primary causes of these inequalities–is automatically dismissed as a simple expression of self-serving prejudice and bigotry.
This thought pattern is ubiquitous in today’s academic and intellectual circles. As long as those who argue against #Oscarssowhite are automatically labeled racists, it will be almost impossible to sway Western educated public opinion away from it’s increasingly blatant and active anti-Israel position.
There is a philosophical battle going on here. Not one waged by toga-wearing (and all white!) Athenian noblemen, or bespectacled professors in University lounges, but a philosophical one nonetheless, waged in the unthinking recesses of the minds of ordinary people looking to adopt the “correct” and moral positions on the great issues of the day. It matters what people think. It therefore matters how they come to think what they think. The prevailing winds in the world of educated (and semi-educated) thought matter. These winds currently blow against us Jews in Israel (shocker, huh?) and we shall have to try to do something about that. What exactly is the nature of these intellectual and philosophical trends? What is their root, their source? And what can we possibly do about them? These are the things I intend to explore in this here blog. (You know, among others.)