Friday, May 27, 2011

Anti-Semitism, Humiliation and Underemployment

During my employment as a paralegal at the law firm of Akin Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld from 1988-1991 I believed I was a victim of job harassment.  In May 1989 a coworker confirmed that there was a rumor current at the firm that I was homosexual.  I reported my concerns about the harassment, which featured rumors and innuendo, to the psychotherapists I saw during my employment.  Both Stanley R. Palombo, M.D. and William D. Brown, Ph.D. surmised that I was a victim of rumors and innuendo because of my underemployed status.  I was licensed to practice law but was employed as a paralegal.  In the view of Drs. Palombo and Brown my coworkers reaction to me was rationally based on my failure to actualize my professional credentials by practicing law.  On one occasion Dr. Palombo said to me, "You're a freak."

The lawyer who terminated my employment at Akin Gump seemed to allude to the rationalization that my interpersonal difficulties at the firm resulted from my underemployed status.  At the termination meeting he said to me: "Maybe a law firm is not the right environment for you."  He seemed to suggest that I will tend to be the object of ridicule in any employment situation where my status as a nonpracticing lawyer is highlighted, as at a law firm.

There is a problem with the views of Drs. Palombo and Brown since anti-Semitism itself, in the view of many learned observers, is at its core an attempt to publicly humiliate the Jew.  Public humiliation of Jews was a mainstay of German anti-Semitism during the Nazi period and earlier throughout the nineteenth century.  Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, first performed in 1868, depicts the public humiliation of a character seen by many as an anti-Semitic caricature of the Jew.

In his paper "Buried Memories on the Acropolis: Freud's Response to Mysticism and Anti-Semitism," psychoanalyst Jeffrey Masson states that at their core, anti-Semitic acts are intended to humiliate.  Masson says that anti-Semitic acts are symbolic castrative gestures that are intended to emasculate the Jew.  He cites the famous incident Freud recounts about a walk the young Freud took with his father:

I may have been ten or twelve years old, when my father began to take his views upon things in the world we live in. Thus it was, on one such occasion, that he told me a story to show me how much better things were now than they had been in his days "When I was a young man", he said, "I went for a walk one Saturday in the streets of your birthplace; I was well dressed, and had a new fur cap on my head. A Christian came up to me and with a single blow knocked off my cap into the mud and shouted: 'Jew! get off the pavement!' 'And what did you do?' I asked. 'I went into the roadway and picked up my cap,' was the quiet reply.

Masson points out that the cap stands for the male organ; the act of knocking the cap off and tossing it into the street was a symbolic castrative gesture.

So just what is the causal relationship, if any, between my underemployed status and the harassment to which I was subjected?  Based on the evidence of my experiences at Akin Gump during my tenure and after, it is probably impossible to say.  Drs. Palombo and Brown failed to consider whether I was subjected to rumors because I was underemployed -- rumors that were rationalized as a conventional and expectable, but unwelcome, response to my underemployed status: or whether I was subjected to acts of humiliation because I was a victim of anti-Semitism based on my status as a Jew.  Perhaps an underemployed worker might be seen as contemptible by colleagues regardless of any animus based on the worker's person: his national origin, race or religion.  Perhaps.  But what we know is that anti-Semitism will take the form of acts of humiliation directed at the Jew: acts of public humiliation that will involve symbolic castrative gestures intended to humiliate the Jew regardless of his employment status.  See also Greenberger, B. "The Anti-Semite and the Oedipal Conflict."  International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 45: 380-385 at 384 (1964) (the Jew, according to the anti-Semite's criteria, is an absolutely castrated being whom he may therefore attack without danger and without guilt).

There is another factor to consider.  The failings and weaknesses of an outsider will be the object of scorn by members of the in-group.  Those same members of the in-group will remain utterly indifferent, even approving or amused before the most shameful actions and moral turpitudes perpetrated by members of the in-group.  See Grunberger at 383: "We understand why the Jew excites so much attention, why his conduct must be perfect, and why his slightest moral weakness is exaggerated by the anti-Semite who would remain utterly indifferent, even approving or amused before the most shameful actions and moral turpitudes perpetrated by non-Jews."

Was I subjected to harassment because I was underemployed or because I was an outsider whose "moral weakness" was an Achilles' heel to be exploited by members of the in-group?

We see the same dynamics involving "insiders" and "outsiders" play out in our national political life.  The Democratic President who exhibits any moral weakness will be censured by Republican politicians.  While those same Republicans will turn a blind eye to the same moral weaknesses exhibited by Republican colleagues. 

One of my colleagues at Akin Gump, F. Robert "Bob" Wheeler, was an attorney who worked as an agency-supplied temporary employee.  His temp assignment at the firm involved the menial task of tape-recording telephone messages disseminated by the Eastern Airlines Pilots association to its membership.  To the best of my knowledge Bob Wheeler was not the object of scorn or ridicule.  In fact, he was later hired by the firm as an associate.

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