The New York Times Whitewashes Voltaire and ‘The Dark Enlightenment’
Vexed by the intolerance of our Trumpian time, distinguished Harvard historian Robert Darnton has offered New York Times readers a solution: “Look to Voltaire” — the Enlightenment paragon who lashed vice and vindicated virtue.
The trouble is that Voltaire, the vindicator of the Protestant martyr Jean Calas, was also central to “the Dark Enlightenment.” He not only satirized the Hebrew Bible, but blamed Jesus’ crucifixion on Jews rather than Romans, and the Spanish Inquisition not on Christians, but on Jews themselves.
In a 1990 letter to the Times, Arthur Hertzberg, author of The French Enlightenment and the Jews (1968), quoted Voltaire: “They are, all of them, born with raging fanaticism in their hearts, just as the Bretons and the Germans are born with blond hair. I would not be in the least bit surprised if these people would not some day become deadly to the human race.”
Jewish friends or no, Voltaire loathed not only Judaism but Jews biologically, which is why he opposed Jewish emancipation. To him, Jews were what we would call racially unassimilable — just as he doubted that Africans were capable of freedom.
Historians of antisemitism have yet to fully explain why great satirists from the Roman Juvenal to Voltaire to Gore Vidal hated Jews and the Jewish religion.
Gore Vidal’s 2012 obituaries, including a front-page New York Times tribute to the “prolific, elegant, acerbic writer,” generally ignored his hatred of Judaism and Jews, often dismissing it as “anti-Zionism.” After all, his life-long companion was Jewish — Howard Austen, an advertising executive.
Vidal’s solution to the antisemitism that his partner faced in the advertising industry was for him to change his name from “Auster” to “Austen.” He apparently believed that if others took his advice, and abandoned particularism for assimilation by changing names, that would go a long way toward solving the embarrassment of Jew hatred.
But Vidal’s disdain went much deeper than the embarrassing last names, accents, and mannerisms. Vidal loathed The New York Times as not only “homophobic,” but for being unwilling to sell advertising space to Nasser’s Egypt, while Commentary was “the Pravda of our Israeli Fifth Column.” Other literary celebrities like Capote and Mailer were contemptible, but worse were Bellow, Malamud, and Roth — Jewish-American writers unable “to put themselves into gentile skins — much less foreskins.”
Israel’s American supporters like Midge Decter and Norman Podhoretz should be forced to register with the Justice Department as agents of a foreign power, Vidal claimed. And America — “a nation that worships psychopaths” — was “a corrupt society” made up of “ongoing hustlers.” About the country of which Vidal the historical novelist claimed to be “the biographer,” he warned: “We must never underestimate the essential bigotry of the white majority in the United States.”
What is clear is that Hertzberg was correct that Voltaire “opened the door” to the horrors of the 20th century. It is also true that Vidal — who as a young man backed the isolationist “America First” Movement that sought to appease Hitler — did not really try to close the door to intolerance. The Times has forgotten Hertzberg’s 1990 warning in its own columns about Voltaire, just as it ignores the antisemitism of so many bigots masquerading as “anti-Zionists” today.
Voltaire’s motto was “Écrasez l’infâme” — by which he meant that all organized religion, not just infamous prejudices, should be eradicated. Be careful whom you glorify as you seek to slay dragons.
Harold Brackman is a long-time consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center on global issues of intolerance and tolerance.