Whoopi Goldberg and the Old American Civil Religion

Everyone has already heard about or seen it. On the January 31 episode of “The View,” Whoopi Goldberg and some other women had a heated intersectional moment during a discussion of the Holocaust. Video starts at about 4:40 here: 

Below is a rough transcript of the relevant exchange:

Goldberg in a frank tone: If we’re going to do this, let’s be truthful about it, because the Holocaust isn’t about race.

Unknown woman in an agreeable tone: No

Joy Behar, annoyed: It is. It’s a different race <inaudible>

Goldberg, holding firm: It’s not about race.

Unknown woman: What is it about?

Goldberg, knowingly and with gravitas: It’s not about race, it’s about man’s inhumanity to man.

Ana Navarro, without confidence: But it’s about white supremacy and going after Jews and Gypsies and . . . [inaudible but some outlets report “Romas,” a redundant term in her list]

Goldberg, somewhat flustered: But it’s not about race. These are two groups of white people. How do we . . .

Joy Behar, skeptical: They don’t see them as white though.

Goldberg, holding court: But you’re missing the point. You’re missing the point. The minute you turn it into race, it goes down this alley. Let’s talk about it for what it is. It’s about how people treat each other. That’s the problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white because black, white, Jews, Italians—everybody eats each other.

There is a lot to unpack here, as they say. What follows is my interpretation of this exchange and the abrupt consequences for Goldberg. There are other interpretations of her statements out there. For example, a rabbi at the Simon Wiesenthal Center suggested that Goldberg was advancing the delusional anti-white definition of racism espoused by many leftists, which maintains that racism can only be perpetrated by whites against non-whites. I don’t find that interpretation to be persuasive for the reasons set forth below, but also because the ADL launched its reproach of Goldberg with the same leftist definition of racism listed authoritatively on its website, and only changed it later after the Wiesenthal interpretations emerged.

I interpret Goldberg’s position to be consistent with what I would loosely call the old American civil religion. Goldberg believes that all men are created equal and that, by extension, all men have the potential to do what other men have done in history, like perpetrating, and being victimized by, genocide. 

According to this view, the pretext for genocidal behavior is minimized, and every human being regardless of race, color, or creed can learn from specific instances of inhumanity justified on racial or creedal grounds. If this weren’t the case, then non-German and non-Jewish children wouldn’t be able to learn from the Holocaust and there would be no universal moral justification for teaching it in America’s diverse schools.

While many would agree that the Holocaust was morally significant for the reason Goldberg stated, her statements provoked outrage among certain Jewish groups and their supporters, resulting in Goldberg issuing an apology and getting sent to timeout from “The View” for two weeks.

In her apology Goldberg declared “I stand corrected,” qualifying that while the Holocaust was still about man’s inhumanity to man, it was also (quoting the ADL) “about the Nazi’s systematic annihilation of the Jewish people—who they deemed to be an inferior race.” The impetus for and content of her apology are significant for many reasons that ultimately point to a persistent problem for American pluralism.

First, the response by the ADL’s CEO was significant because it was phrased as a factual correction to Goldberg’s statements, which in my opinion discussed the moral significance of the Holocaust and didn’t deny that the Nazis persecuted the Jews because they believed Jews were an inferior race. If the contrary were the case, and instead of making a claim about the moral significance of the Holocaust Goldberg had intended to assert that the Holocaust was motivated by a feeling of inhumanity and not racist beliefs, she wouldn’t have retained the claim about general inhumanity in her apology. 

Goldberg’s statement that it doesn’t matter if you’re black or white because “everybody eats each other” demonstrates that she was equally comfortable with emphasizing that white-on-black racial persecution was ultimately about man’s inhumanity to man. Goldberg’s comment that the Holocaust was about whites persecuting other whites was an attempt to argue that the Nazis’ racial beliefs were erroneous, reinforcing her claim that the Holocaust’s ultimate moral significance was universal.

The ADL and other outraged commentators, however, felt it necessary to fact check Goldberg by pointing to Nazi racial beliefs about Jews. Why? I find the answer to this question in the incomplete scope of the ADL’s response and Whoopi’s subsequent apology. 

Recall that one of Goldberg’s interlocutors, Ana Navarro, responded to her that the Holocaust was about the persecution of Jews and Gypsies and some other unknown category of people. Because the ADL did not correct this statement, and because this interlocutor was not admonished, we can assume that the ADL concedes the Holocaust encompassed all racially motivated Nazi persecution policies. Neither the ADL’s statement nor Goldberg’s apology, however, mention the other groups targeted by Nazi racial policy. The importance of this omission is magnified by Goldberg’s inclusion of a direct apology to Jewish people in her statement:

“The Jewish people around the world have always had my support and that will never waiver. I’m sorry for the hurt I have caused.”

Thus, under the pretext of a fact check that wasn’t really a fact check—both because it wasn’t correcting an incorrect statement of fact and because it was itself factually incomplete—outraged viewers elicited from Goldberg a partial recantation and apology narrowly drafted to mollify “Jewish people around the world.” The significance of this strange outcome is clear to me. Goldberg’s detractors were outraged because for them the moral significance of the Holocaust is not that it demonstrates man’s capacity for inhumanity. For the detractors, contrary to Whoopi’s claim about whites, blacks, Jews, and Italians, the ethnic identities of victims and perpetrators determine the moral significance of a genocide. In this case, the Holocaust is morally significant because Hitler believed Jews were racially inferior (but apparently not because he believed Gypsies and Poles—you forgot about Poland!—were racially inferior).

I don’t think this was some organized, conspiratorial move by powerful Jews, nor do I think it was necessarily motivated by specific religious precepts shared by all Jews. I think this response is more easily explained by social-psychological phenomena, like the universal human motivation to achieve self-distinction through group recognition, as further described by John Murray Cuddihy in his short chapter, “The Holocaust: The Latent Issue in the Uniqueness Debate”:

To the profane eyes of a sociologist who is neither a Jew nor a Christian, one of the obvious if latent functions of the appeal to a sacred uniqueness is that it stakes out a subcultural status claim to exclusiveness, setting the claimant’s group and its members apart and making them immune from comparison.

This analysis or something similar likely explains the diversity of Jewish responses to Goldberg’s statements, which nonetheless congealed around an apparent need to chastise Goldberg for failing to, in one way or another, acknowledge that the Holocaust was first and foremost a Jewish thing. 

For example, Kenneth L. Marcus, chairman of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, interpreted Goldberg’s statements to have conflated Jews with mere whites by advancing “the notion that Jews should be viewed only as being white, privileged oppressors.” In stressing the general inhumanity of the Holocaust and pointing out the baselessness of Nazi racial views, Goldberg’s argument “denies Jewish identity and involves a whitewashing of Jewish history.” For Marcus, the Nazi’s erroneous racial views about Jews and Germans prove that Jews are something qualitatively different from mere whites like Slavs.

While most of the responses to Goldberg were likely not motivated by religious convictions, the old American civil religion requires us to treat them as being so motivated, because there is no other public, non-institutional normative framework for addressing competing ethnic claims in American life. Under the old American civil religion—and most Americans would probably accept this today—we have an obligation to tolerate, even respect, each other’s religious beliefs, including the belief that historical events have special religious significance. 

But this obligation carries with it a corollary obligation to refrain from affirming the universality of a specific religious belief, because doing so would violate the obligation to tolerate the beliefs of those who do not accept such universality. Accordingly non-Jews like Goldberg have an obligation to respect the belief that the moral significance of the Holocaust is that it victimized Jews. Goldberg also, however, has an obligation to not affirm this interpretation for all Americans. The old civil religion requires us to find a shared moral significance that translates into something intelligible to all Americans, and this is the function performed by the concepts of humanity and inhumanity in Goldberg’s statements. 

This approach avoids offending those who disagree with Jews on religious grounds, shares the significance of the Holocaust with those whose ethnic groups were not affected by its brutality, and most importantly, avoids diminishing the suffering of non-Jews who were victimized in the Holocaust.

The prominent Americans who attacked and punished Goldberg for her statements abandoned their obligations under the old American civil religion. Goldberg herself abandoned her obligation when she qualified her statement and directed an apology toward Jews. Other authoritative public voices continue to abandon their obligations in a similar manner, with a prominent recent example being the New York Times’ promotion of the “1619 Project,” a black ethnoreligious effort to redefine American history and its moral significance solely in terms of slavery.

I know this sounds like an obnoxious homily, and I’m hardly a priest of the old American civil religion. I nevertheless think it fair to highlight these apostasies, because if we are going to give up on the civil religion—and it certainly appears that we are—we should at least be honest about the implications for those Americans who were born and raised as its deracinated adherents. We are, after all, subject to the same sociological forces Cuddihy describes above. 

Are we now free to choose our own particularist, perhaps ethnic, religion? Are we now free to stop respecting the particularist beliefs of older religions and more established ethnic groups? Or must we accede to the beliefs of these groups and publicly affirm them on behalf of those groups, but not for ourselves?

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About Second City Bureaucrat

Second City Bureaucrat is an opposition activist and a satirist.

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