Monday, November 02, 2009

Disraeli and Obama

I've been wondering for a while how many similarities there are between Benjamin Disraeli (the first and so far only Jewish Prime Minister of England) and Barack Obama (the first black President of the United States.)  I didn't really know anything else about Disraeli.  Finally I got around to reducing my ignorance by visiting Wikipedia.

Two interesting things struck me:
  1. When Disraeli began his political career, it was illegal for practicing Jews to be Members of Parliament.  This was not actually a problem for Disraeli, since he had converted to Christianity, but it indicates the level of anti-Semitism that existed at the time.  In America, because we have freedom of religion, it is perfectly legal for Muslims to hold public office.  But apparently in some people's minds it ought not to be.  (And again, in Obama's case this would not be a problem, because he doesn't appear ever to have been a practicing Muslim.)
  2. As I was reading the Wikipedia article, I saw that Disraeli claimed to be of Spanish descent, that he speculated unsuccessfully in South American mines, had the reputation of being a ladies' man and finally married a rich English woman.  "Wow," I said, "he's Ferdinand Lopez!"
 Ferdinand Lopez is a character in the novel The Prime Minister, by Anthony Trollope.  He conceals his Jewish ancestry* (which I don't believe Disraeli ever did), does all the things mentioned above and is not really a very nice person.  According to this article, Trollope created several characters who resemble Disraeli, but it seems to me that Lopez is the most similar one.  I'm quite shocked actually. 

Trollope disliked Disraeli for several reasons:  his successful political career (Trollope attempted politics but failed); his literary career (I'm not sure how successful Disraeli was, but Trollope seems to have felt he was more successful than he deserved and that he himself was a better writer); and possibly his Jewishness.

What does this have to do with Barack Obama?  There's been a lot of discussion as to whether his political opponents are "racist" or not.  And Trollope is an interesting example of someone who objects to a certain person's policies and occasionally uses racist stereotypes to express his disapproval. 

Also, people have devoted quite a bit of time to arguing that Trollope was not "really" anti-Semitic -- because they like his writing and they don't want to admire anyone who's prejudiced.  Personally, I like his writing and I also think he displays some genuine anti-Semitism.  I've also heard that he made a number of racist statements about black people.  He's a little sexist too.  So . . . he was what they call a product of his time. On the other hand, Trollope always displayed a certain amount of sympathy for the underdog (especially if the underdog was female.)  But it seems pretty clear to me that as a white guy he was on top and he wanted to stay that way.  And when it comes to Obama, there's a fair amount of that floating around too.

* Incidentally, in the Palliser novels (which are pretty much the only Trollope I've read), nobody ever admits to being Jewish.  They are "said to be" Jewish, because apparently it was such a horrible thing that it could only be whispered about behind someone's back.  I don't know how many crypto-Jews there were in 19th-century England, and as I've mentioned above, Disraeli was not a crypto-Jew and Obama is not a crypto-Muslim, but there is certainly an ongoing belief that lily-white Christendom is under attack by sneaking, creeping, hate-filled hordes of darkness.

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