ACADEMICALLY SPEAKING: Whoopi Goldberg’s thoughts on Jews prove that ‘lived experiences’ count for squat
Goldberg’s interview should be a warning to stop giving credence to 'lived experiences' and start calling out people for speaking publicly on topics without sufficient knowledge and critical thinking ability.
"Academically Speaking" is a series by Campus Reform Editor in Chief Zachary Marschall that, drawing on his firsthand experience working with other scholars across the globe, reveals how radical ideas originating in academia impact Americans’ daily lives.
Marschall holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies and is an adjunct professor at the University of Kentucky. His research investigates the intersections of democratic political systems, free market economies, and technological innovation in the production of national and cultural identities, as well as the exchange of cultural goods, services, and practices.
The greatest scam coming out of higher education and affecting the rest of American culture is the idea that “lived experience” can substitute for scholarly intellect.
At a time when entitled young Americans increasingly resist manual and intellectual labor, academics and average Americans alike claim they understand how social structures and dynamics operate simply because of their “lived experiences.” The projects, protesters, petitions, and papers invoking “lived experience” are undercutting the role learned methodologies, theoretical frameworks, and literary synthesis play in helping scholars develop critical viewpoints.
Not everyone has learned these tools, and therefore not all opinions on why and how people behave – the areas of focus for the social sciences – are created equal. That reality goes unrecognized by prevailing attitudes among those in this country that reward social media influencers and uneducated celebrities for feelings things in public forums with validation that should be reserved only for true academic accomplishment, such as defending a dissertation.
There is, however, no humility in this country. Most people are not interested in knowing what they do not know. They do not see the difference between being informed and being an expert. That self-awareness is sorely needed, but is not coming any time soon.
What sparked me to make the observation that humility and self-awareness are not forthcoming? Criticism of Whoopi Goldberg “doubling down” on her anti-Semitism went viral over Christmas weekend after she told The Times that the Nazi persecution of Jews was not racially motivated. Her argument was laced with ignorance and illogical (as well as ungrammatical) reasoning.
Despite all the correct criticism, no one challenged Goldberg for making statements and judgments on topics she is too uneducated to understand.
“They were not killing racial; they were killing physical,” she apparently said.
Adjusted for wanting syntax, Goldberg claimed that the Holocaust was not racially motivated because the Nazis were targeting the physically disabled in the 1930s, before the concentration camps were fully operational as death centers.
That point is true, but what Goldberg fails to grasp is that historical narratives are made up of parallel and contravening currents of activities and ideas. The Nazis put my grandfather in Dachau immediately after Kristallnacht in 1938, a night of destruction that targeted Jewish businesses and homes. Dachau was primarily a camp for political prisoners at that point and included Catholics among its inmates.
But concurrent with the killings of political prisoners and the disabled, the Nazis systematically took away Jews’ rights using the 1935 Nuremberg Laws as justification. This legal code categorized Jews as sub-human according to Nazi racial purity ideology. These laws codified Jews as a parasitic race and contributed to the subsumption of Jews, including my grandfather, as members of an inferior race.
Nazis formally adopted the Final Solution in 1942 at the Wannsee Conference. This barbaric policy culminated Nazis’ deliberations over the Jewish Question: how to create a European continent free of Jews.
Mass Jewish killings started in waves after political and disabled prisoners were targeted because the Nazis were deliberate. The Holocaust was the Nazis’ radical application of Enlightenment rationality and American progressivism’s embrace of eugenics. Confident in final victory, the Nazis chose to exterminate the Jews in an orderly fashion.
This approach took time and required an infrastructure that could not be built and deployed overnight; on my tour of Dachau, I saw kilns the Nazis never got the chance to use but which were representative of the original intent to rid Europe of Jews.
No one challenged Goldberg to at least finish school before making such simplistic and one-dimensional claims. Liberal public figures read her remarks as an invocation of her “lived experiences” as a Black woman and cowered.
Goldberg was suspended from The View after making that claim earlier this year. I wrote about it here for Campus Reform, explaining that my Jewish grandfather’s identification card in Nazi Germany listed him as ‘persecuted’ due to his race.’
Goldberg’s comments were nearly identical to her earlier remarks this year, which I covered for Campus Reform. I am not going to rehash my argument here. Instead, I am interested in proving through this recent example that validating uninformed arguments based on “lived experiences” is detrimental to American society.
I don’t need more pundits being outraged at Goldberg. I want public figures and intellectuals to question how a celebrity high school dropout like Goldberg can make ignorant statements about the Holocaust during a time of rising anti-Semitism, and no one questions why she gets a platform to do so.
Goldberg apologized earlier this week, acknowledging that she “believe[s] that the Holocaust was about race.”
“I’m still learning a lot and believe me, I heard everything everyone said to me,” Goldberg also stated in her apology, which Variety published.
There is still a lesson to be learned here. Goldberg’s interview should be a warning to stop giving credence to “lived experiences” and start calling out people for speaking publicly on topics without sufficient knowledge and critical thinking ability. Public figures need the patience and humility to learn subjects before they speak out about them.
Goldberg had defended her incendiary comments by arguing, “It doesn't change the fact that you could not tell a Jew on a street.”
This claim is blatantly false. Goldberg lacks historical context, believing that how Americans see each other in the 21st century applies to people across space and time. Racism is hatred built on arbitrary social constructions and therefore views people differently across cultures and times.
Scholars on the left use historical context to study historical processes and narratives. Yet they do not call out Goldberg when she lacks the intellectual capacity to speak on the Holocaust.
This silence goes beyond the left trying to protect its own. It speaks to the fear in today’s woke cancel culture of standing up to people who are wrong because they are a certain race or skin color.
To support that dumbfounding statement, Goldberg invoked her ’lived experience‘ as a Black American, and in doing so shields herself from center-left scholars that know better.
"You could find me. You couldn't find them,” Goldberg stated. “That was the point I was making. But you would have thought that I'd taken a big old stinky dump on the table, butt naked."
Of course the Nazis knew where to find Jews.
Rural Jews in Eastern Europe lived in shtetls, or small agrarian villages. Urban working- and lower-middle-class Jews in Central Europe largely resided in the ghettos.
The first Jewish ghettos in Europe – where local leaders told Jews to live – started over 500 years ago in Frankfurt, Germany, and Venice, Italy. Due to legalized discrimination, the ghettos remained Jewish neighborhoods through the early 20th century.
When Nazis rounded up the more affluent Jews who moved out, they forced them to live in urban ghettos before carting them off to concentration camps.
“If you lived in Vienna, you lived in Leopoldstadt, you wore a yellow patch, and stepped off the pavement to make way for an Austrian.”
That line comes from Tom Stoppard’s play, Leopoldstadt, currently playing on Broadway. Leopoldstadt was the Jewish ghetto in Vienna, but the line does not reference the Holocaust. Instead, it is uttered by one of Stoppard’s Viennese characters describing life before the Austrian emperor emancipated Jews in the 1860s.
The play is a useful tool for understanding how Jews were interpolated as a separate race in pre-World War II Europe.
The word Goldberg is looking for is “interpolation.” The verb, “interpolating,” is the act of inserting “between other things or parts.” Applied to social interactions, interpolation describes how one person can “read” another individual. The person visually sees the other, and based on physical markers, may insert preconceived ideas or notions about that individual based on appearance.
This is how racism operates. Jews were moving off sidewalks in 19th century Vienna because gentile Austrians were able to read the minorities as Jews. The Nazis had the same capacity, which the children’s book Number the Stars recounts in a scene where a Jewish child is nearly arrested for having suspiciously dark hair.
“There isn’t a gentile anywhere who at one moment or another hasn’t thought, ‘Jew!,’” a character exclaims in Leopoldstadt.
The character explains why Jews cannot “hide” fully in assimilation. Even if they convert, European Jews are still racialized – and therefore exposed – by cultural prejudices:
“Assimilation means to carry on being a Jew without insult. Episcopalians are assimilated. Zoroastrians are assimilated. I could be a Druid for all my professors’ care. It is only the Jews. I am an unbeliever. I don’t observe Jewish customs except as a souvenir of family ties. But to a gentile I am a Jew. There isn’t a gentile anywhere who at one moment or another hasn’t thought, ‘Jew!’”
Interpolation factors into numerous scholarly theories and conservations on discrimination, but also on seeing, including the “right” to see. For example, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality is written by Nicholas Mizeroff, professor at New York University, and addresses how colonialism and slavery conditioned subjugated classes to look or glance away at members of the ruling classes.
There’s too much academic work already done on this subject of looking and race-based persecution to give liberal scholars the benefit of the doubt over Goldberg. Liberal scholars know why she is wrong but refuse to rebuke the celebrity’s intellectual malpractice and abuse of her platform.
The value higher education and mainstream media place on “lived experience” undercuts the value of academic training and methods. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, but that does not mean everyone should feel empowered to speak on any issue as if they were an expert. It should occur to more people that they might be factually wrong about things they feel.
Editorials and op-eds reflect the opinion of the authors and not necessarily that of Campus Reform or the Leadership Institute.