Epistemic Status: Speculative.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew, available online here, is a really interesting study of the psychology of anti-Semitism, written in a time (1940’s France) when it was common for people to talk overtly about how much they hated Jews.  Sartre, being Gentile and from a culture where anti-Semitism was much more common than it is in 21st century America, had an opportunity to observe these people that I do not.  So while he paints an extremely unflattering picture of anti-Semites, one that’s almost hard to believe, I take it seriously.

What are anti-Semites like, according to Sartre?

They are lazy. Sartre gives the example of a man who believes Jews are given unfair advantages in passing an exam he failed, but readily admits that he didn’t study for it.

They are people-oriented rather than thing-oriented.  “They behave  toward social  facts like primitives who endow the wind and the sun with little  souls.  Intrigues,  cabals,  the  perfidy  of  one  man,  the  courage and  virtue  of another —  that is what  determines  the  course  of  their  business,  that  is  what  determines  the  course of the world.”

They are impulsive.  “the  anti‐Semite  understands  nothing  about  modern  society.   He  would be incapable of conceiving of a constructive plan; his action cannot reach the level of the methodical; it remains  on  the  ground  of  passion.   To  a  long‐term  enterprise  he  prefers  an  explosion  of  rage  analogous  to  the  running  amuck of the Malays.”

They are bullies.  “He  has  chosen  also  to  be  terrifying.   People  are  afraid  of  irritating  him.   No  one  knows  to  what  lengths  the aberrations of his passion will carry him  —  but he knows,  for this passion is not provoked by something external.  He  has it well in hand; it is obedient to his will: now he lets go of  the  reins  and  now  he  pulls  back  on  them.”

They are conformists.  “This man fears every kind of solitariness, that of the genius  as  much  as  that  of  the  murderer;  he  is  the  man  of  the  crowd.   However  small  his  stature,  he  takes  every  precaution  to  make  it  smaller,  lest  he  stand  out  from  the  herd  and  find  himself  face  to  face  with  himself.   He  has  made himself an anti‐Semite because that is something one  cannot be alone.  The phrase, “I hate the  Jews,” is one that  is  uttered  in  chorus;  in  pronouncing  it,  one  attaches himself to a tradition and to a community  —  the tradition and community of the mediocre.”

They are irrational.  “The anti-Semite has chosen to live on the plane of passion.” They like being angry (at the Jews), and seek out opportunities to work themselves up into a rage.  They deliberately say trollish things that make no sense: “Never  believe  that  anti‐ Semites  are  completely  unaware  of  the  absurdity  of  their  replies.  They know  that  their remarks are  frivolous, open  to  challenge.   But  they  are  amusing  themselves, for it is  their  adversary  who  is  obliged  to  use  words  responsibly,  since he believes in words.  The anti‐Semites have the right  to play.”

They are mystical and anti-intellectual.  “The anti‐Semite has a fundamental  incomprehension of the various forms of modern property:  money,  securities,  etc.   These  are  abstractions,  entities of reason related to the abstract intelligence of the Semite…What  his  subtle  sense  seizes  upon is  precisely  that which the intelligence cannot perceive.” In other words: he cannot understand complicated abstract ideas which in principle anybody could grasp, with enough time and effort and ordinary thinking; but he believes he has magical powers of intuition that reach beyond the intellect and which the Jews innately will forever lack.

They are a mob. “He  wants  his  personality  to  melt  suddenly  into  the  group  and  be  carried  away  by  the  collective  torrent.   He  has  this  atmosphere  of  the  pogrom  in  mind  when  he  asserts  “the  union of all Frenchmen.”

Why would a person want to be wrong on purpose?

Sartre explains:

How  can  one  choose  to  reason  falsely?  It  is  because  of  a  longing for impenetrability.  The rational man groans as he  gropes  for  the  truth;  he  knows  that  his  reasoning  is  no  more  than  tentative,  that  other  considerations  may  supervene  to  cast  doubt  on it.  He  never  sees  very  clearly  where he is going; he is “open”; he may even appear to be  hesitant.   But  there  are  people  who  are  attracted  by  the  durability  of  a  stone.   They  wish  to  be  massive  and  impenetrable;  they  wish  not  to  change.   Where,  indeed,  would  change  take  them?   We  have  here  a  basic  fear  of  oneself  and  of  truth.   What  frightens  them  is  not  the content of truth, of which they have no conception, but the form itself of truth, that thing of indefinite approximation. It is as if their own existence were in continual suspension.

In other words: the person who is wrong on purpose is afraid of the vulnerability of trying at a task that may fail.  In particular, afraid of the process of learning.  The “indefinite approximation” Sartre mentions is the process of double-checking, doubting, asking questions, second-guessing, saying “oops”, moderating or complicating one’s views, all the millions of mental motions involved in trying to understand things accurately. The person who is wrong on purpose wants to just stop all of that motion, forever.

Only  a  strong  emotional  bias  can give a lightning‐like  certainty; it alone  can hold reason in leash; it alone can remain impervious to  experience and last for a whole lifetime.

People choose to be wrong so that they can play a game that is by definition impossible to lose.  They don’t like trying or working hard. They don’t like expectations being placed on them.

The  anti‐Semite  is  not  too  anxious  to  possess  individual  merit.   Merit  has  to  be  sought,  just  like  truth;  it  is  discovered  with  difficulty;  one  must  deserve  it.   Once  acquired, it is perpetually in question: a false step, an error,  and  it  flies  away.  Without  respite,  from  the  beginning  of  our lives to the end, we are responsible for what merit we  enjoy.

But the anti-Semite wants a respite from responsibility, very badly.  He wants to be done.  He wants an end to trying altogether.

 Anti‐Semitism, in  short, is fear of the human condition.  The anti‐Semite is a  man  who  wishes  to  be  pitiless  stone,  a  furious  torrent,  a  devastating thunderbolt‐anything except a man.

Sartre’s “Anti-Semitism” Isn’t Just About Jews

Sartre says explicitly that the character that made a Frenchman of his time into an anti-Semite could in other contexts apply to other races: “The Jew only serves him as a pretext; elsewhere his  counterpart  will  make  use  of  the  Negro  or  the  man  of  yellow skin.”

Sartre’s version of anti-Semitism is a lot like the American institution of herrenvolk democracy, in which white people, no matter how poor, formed a coalition that allowed them to be socially superior to black people, given arbitrary privileges over them and free to enact unpunished mob violence against them.

Anti-Asian prejudice (“sure, they’re smart, but they’re not really a good culture fit“) is also structurally very similar to the defiant mediocrity that Sartre describes in anti-Semites.

More controversially, there is something about the concept of Asperger’s Syndrome, which is no longer officially a medical designation and was arguably never a natural category, that matches this pattern.  Smart, logical people who just aren’t one of us, who may technically fulfill the requirements of a job but don’t have the right intangibles, who aren’t good at politicking, who naively believe in the literal rules, and who inevitably get bullied.

Structurally, we’re talking about a cartel, or a mob.  Mob in both the “mafia” and the “riot” sense.  Collusion to keep unmerited privilege, enforced by acts of random violence.

If you are trying to enforce an eternal privilege, something that cannot be lost no matter what you do, then being wrong, or being bad at things, or treating others badly, is the fundamental test of the security of your status.  Being wrong is both a badge and one of the perks of class membership.

Fascism and Mysticism

This article on Jordan Petersen is infuriating in some ways — there are gratuitous digs at masculinity and self-help that I don’t endorse — but it’s worth reading because it outlines his historical influences.

A range of intellectual entrepreneurs, from Theosophists and vendors of Asian spirituality like Vivekananda and D.T. Suzuki to scholars of Asia like Arthur Waley and fascist ideologues like Julius Evola (Steve Bannon’s guru) set up stalls in the new marketplace of ideas. W.B. Yeats, adjusting Indian philosophy to the needs of the Celtic Revival, pontificated on the “Ancient Self”; Jung spun his own variations on this evidently ancestral unconscious. Such conceptually foggy categories as “spirit” and “intuition” acquired broad currency; Peterson’s favorite words, being and chaos, started to appear in capital letters. Peterson’s own lineage among these healers of modern man’s soul can be traced through his repeatedly invoked influences: not only Carl Jung, but also Mircea Eliade, the Romanian scholar of religion, and Joseph Campbell, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, who, like Peterson, combined a conventional academic career with mass-market musings on heroic individuals.

There is, historically, a connection between occultism and the study of mythology, on the one hand, and fascism, on the other. (I would add D.H. Lawrence to the list of fascist-sympathizing mystics.)  The literal Nazis were very fond of myth and magic — see the Thule Society.  Start exploring contemporary neopaganism and occultism and you’ll quickly run into people with some very disturbing politics.

There’s a historical explanation — both the Theosophists and the fascists drew intellectually from German Idealism — but Sartre gives a more psychological explanation.  Both the desire to enjoy unearned (racial) privilege and the desire to believe in occult forces essentially boil down to the desire not to be tested.  One can fail tests.

If you have an invisible, magical essence that makes you special, however — that can’t be taken away by any inconvenient facts.

Cartel Thinking

The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective“, an account of a Chinese immigrant’s experiences at Cambridge, Goldman Sacks, and Stanford Business School, talks a fair bit about the mentality of seeking to live insulated from fair tests.

“In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.”

When Puzhong makes a successful trade by accident at Goldman Sacks, he expects to be reprimanded for his mistake, but is instead rewarded. But “it was not enough to just be a good trader. It was also essential to be able to manage one’s boss, other colleagues, and those who report to them.”

In business school, he learns (amusingly enough) that the way one is supposed to express feelings in American elite culture seems a lot like falsifying them:

We talked about microaggressions and feelings and empathy and listening. Sometimes in class the professor would say things to me like “Puzhong, when Mary said that, I could see you were really feeling something,” or “Puzhong, I could see in your eyes that Peter’s story affected you.” And I would tell them I didn’t feel anything. I was quite confused.

One of the papers we studied mentioned that subjects are often not conscious of their own feelings when fully immersed in a situation. But body indicators such as heart rate would show whether the person is experiencing strong emotions. I thought that I generally didn’t have a lot of emotions and decided that this might be a good way for me to discover my hidden emotions that the professor kept asking about.

So I bought a heart rate monitor and checked my resting heart rate. Right around 78. And when the professor said to me in class “Puzhong, I can see that story brought up some emotions in you,” I rolled up my sleeve and checked my heart rate. It was about 77.  And so I said, “nope, no emotion.” The experiment seemed to confirm my prior belief: my heart rate hardly moved, even when I was criticized, though it did jump when I became excited or laughed.

This didn’t land well on some of my classmates. They felt I was not treating these matters with the seriousness that they deserved. The professor was very angry. My takeaway was that my interpersonal skills were so bad that I could easily offend people unintentionally, so I concluded that after graduation I should do something that involved as little human interaction as possible.

Puzhong is noticing that American elite businesspeople appear to be colluding rather than competing.  They’re not racing each other for profits, they’re signaling that they’re cozy insiders who will play nice and share the spoils with others who know the right buzzwords.  Cartel behavior, in other words.

I had always thought that things happen for reasons. My parents taught me that good people get rewarded while evil gets punished. My teachers at school taught me that if you work hard, you will succeed, and if you never try, you will surely fail.

If people are rewarded for reasons, then anyone who meets these publicly known criteria can gain rewards.  If rewards are given opaquely, then they can be safely restricted to existing insiders. Therefore, people who want to preserve cartel privilege have an interest in being mysterious and not making sense.

Applied Wrongology

I have never been an anti-Semite, for obvious reasons; I have never been a banker or MBA, either, and I like to think that racism is not particularly my vice.  But I do understand the longing for security.

It gets tiring to be tested all the time, to be subject to skepticism, to be second-guessed, to have expectations placed upon you.  It’s nerve-wracking to have to perform and worry that you’ll fail.  Merit is intimidating. Objectivity is daunting.

And, on the other hand, to float completely free, to have a space where you can just be, to feel the world is faintly gold-dusted and magical, to build castles in the air without any annoying people coming around to check on whether you’re being “productive” or whether the castles are, in fact, real…that would be lovely, wouldn’t it?  Doesn’t that seem more like the way life should naturally be?

And wouldn’t it be nice to be sure that nobody will ever come round to weigh and measure and count and judge?  Forever, no matter what?

I can’t, in sincerity, say people shouldn’t want that. It’s a very understandable thing to want, to be cut slack, to not be judged. At times I want it myself.


But Sartre’s anti-Semite only wants to be secure — he isn’t said to succeed.  Just because he wants to stop being human doesn’t mean he can get what he wants. Total security, and total absence of thought, is probably unattainable.


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To empathize with this perspective, it might be useful to imagine something you're not especially good at which holds no appeal for you--fistfighting, say. Then imagine a world where this thing you're not especially good at really matters. I assume this is the situation a lot of people find themselves in with regard to intelligence.

Everyone's always gonna argue for a world where things they are good at are the things that matter.

imagine you're in a fistfight with a hungry tiger. Do you want it to be a fair fight, or would you like to try and cheat somehow?

I worry that antisemites were Sartre’s outgroup (as they should be), and that this explains his description of them better than reality. Sure, maybe the kind of people he describes are overrepresented among racists, however, if a majority of racists were as lazy and stupid as he claims, WW2 would have been a lot shorter.

People choose to be wrong

Of course, they make no such conscious choices. The problem, I suspect, is that their minds "truth" is defined as something impenetrable, and when they see you asking questions and making mistakes, they deduce that you don't know the truth. Really, it's a very simple error to make, if you look at common depictions of wise men.

They are irrational. ... Structurally, we’re talking about a cartel, or a mob. Mob in both the “mafia” and the “riot” sense. Collusion to keep unmerited privilege

It is not irrational to want to hang on to power/privilege. A very basic property of a rational agent is to want to increase or at least not decrease its level of capability in the world. Fair competition, when you would lose, is irrational. In fact the very notion of "fair" is hard to define in a general way, but winning is less hard to define.

Similarly, it is not irrational to want to form a cartel or political ingroup. Quite the opposite. It's like the concept of economic moat, but for humans.

all the millions of mental motions involved in trying to understand things accurately. The person who is wrong on purpose wants to just stop all of that motion, forever.

The most important thing for an agent to understand is to preserve itself and its utility function. Perhaps Satre's antisemites, though lacking in IQ, understood this better than we do.

Similarly, it is not irrational to want to form a cartel or political ingroup. Quite the opposite. It's like the concept of economic moat, but for humans.

And so you get the patriarchy and the reaction to it feminism. This leads to the culture wars that we have to day. So it is locally optimal but leads to problems in the greater system.

How do we escape this kind of trap?