When I woke up this morning I noticed an article by Politico (which is not a right-wing publication) that registered a high frequency on my schlemiel radar. The words that caught my attention were in its headline: “Pajama Boy, An Insufferable Man-Child.” The article was written in response to an ad tweeted by “Organizing for America,” a group that has been putting out ads in support of Obamacare. The ad has been responded to by the likes of Chris Christie who tweeted – in one of several tweets – that he should “get out of his pajamas and get a job.” And George Will, a well-known conservative who writes for the Washington Post called this an expression of the Democratic party.
Organizing for America was obviously shooting for a large demographic which emulates the man-child; that is, the schlemiel. To be sure, as Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi writes in Booking Passage: Exile and Homecoming in the The Modern Jewish Imagination, the schlemiel has become a “cultural icon.” Daniel Itzkovitz has also noted this trend in his essay “They Are All Jews” and points out that the “new schlemiel” is the “everyman.”
The people on Morning Joe on MSNBC found it – like America finds many “new schlemiels” – very funny.
Regarding this tweeted ad, Lowry of Politico writes:
Pajama Boy is about as threatening as Michael Cera and so nerdy he could guest-host on an unwatched MSNBC show. He is probably reading The Bell Jar and looking forward to a hearty Christmas meal of stuffed tofurkey. If he has anything to say about it, Obamacare enrollments will spike in the next few weeks in Williamsburg and Ann Arbor.
Lowry’s characterization is trying to dig up the stereotype that would appeal to a certain demographic. And this demographic is one that finds great interest in the everyman as the new schlemiel. He likens the subject to “Michael Cera,” who isn’t Jewish and isn’t cast as a Jew in any films; indeed, Michael Cera and “pajama man” are new schlemiels. Indeed, many characters in Portlandia or Big Bang Theory qualify as “new schlemiels.”
Nonetheless, Jay Michaelson recently wrote a piece for the Forwards suggesting that the characterization of the Pajama Boy as a “man-child” (Michaelson, strangely enough doesn’t use the word “schlemiel”) was a negative characterization that draws on what he would call “fascistic” stereotypes of Jews-as-schlemiels (effeminate males):
In fact, Pajama Boy stands at a centuries-old nexus of anti-Semitism and misogyny. As scholars including Sander Gilman and Daniel Boyarin have shown, Jewish men have been accused of being unmanly for hundreds of years – including by other Jews, such as the early Zionists, whose muscular Judaism was a direct response to diaspora Jewish emasculation. This is an old, old motif.
The Jew is the Other is the Effeminate is the Liberal. He is the urbanite, the parasite, the usurer, the lawyer. His effeminacy corrupts the Volk or the Heartland or the real American values. He wouldn’t know how to drive a pick-up truck if it was on cruise control. And he definitely votes for Obama.
While I can understand what Michaelson is getting at, I think he is going to far. He claims that the Pajama Boy – because of his looks – signifies as a Jew and that the Right thinks of all progressives, unconsciously, as Jews.
These last words go a little too far and go beyond politics to suggest anti-Semitism on the part of the Right. It suggests that any characterization of the man-child draws on this age-old stereotype – that emerged by and large out of Germany – that was leveled against Jews. I will quote them at length:
Normal human beings are gentiles. They spit or smoke tobacco, they speak plainly, and they are manly men who don’t wear pajamas, don’t raise their eyebrows, don’t support affordable healthcare, and definitely don’t flay their arms around like Woody Allen. Or Shylock. Real men. Not Jews.
Whether or not the Pajama-Boy bashers are unconsciously anti-Semitic or not, I don’t know. Consciously, they are against everything “Judaism” stands for, at least as construed by its enemies: outsiderness, cosmopolitanism, liberalism, a progressive rather than nativist agenda, an opposition to the notion that there is one kind of “normal” person, a sympathy for the underdog and the immigrant as opposed to the successful and the privileged, and, yes, a rejection of a certain gendered, masculinist understanding of justice wherein the strong survive and the weak are trampled underfoot like the untermenschen they are.
That fascistic outlook has long been a part of far-right conservatism – whether in revisionist Zionism, contemporary French/Hungarian/Greek nationalism, American Republicanism, or German fascism. Real men are strong, and the weak don’t deserve our pity. Let them get sick for lack of healthcare; they probably deserve it. And as for women, and the parasitic “Jewish” men who resemble them? They are to be suppressed and domesticated, not empowered. Patriarchy is good. Sexism is natural. Get out of your onesies, America. And put on your jackboots.
While I think there is some truth to what Michaelson is saying (since there is a history of negatively characterizing Jews as effeminate, schlemiels; and I have written on this, extensively), the fact of the matter is that the “ideal of work” (which he calls patriarchal) is at the core of the right’s characterization. But I wouldn’t call this fascistic. And do “they” deplore “everything a Jew stands for?” Do they hate Jews like they hate liberalism? Do Jews = Liberalism? Do Jews = Progressivism?
The fact of the matter is that the effeminate male, the nerd, is the new schlemiel. But many new schlemiels work and are successful. All of the nerds, for instance, in a show like Big Bang Theory may have their trials and tribulations with sexuality, but they will all likely be successful. (The new schlemiel is not necessarily a slacker, despite some (not all) of Judd Apatow’s characterizations.) And the whole country right and left knows this. The problem is tactical. The ad campaign made a big mistake in producing this character in pajamas which, obviously, would suggest that he is a “dependent” child.
Regardless, I think it is problematic for Michaelson to present things in this manner as it suggests that half of this country hates Jews and thinks of all Jews as progressive man-children. The connotation of the man-child who doesn’t work and isn’t a “real-man” is a problematic, obviously. But, if we are going to go there, then are we going to slight Woody Allen and his latest films or Judd Apatow and his for giving in to patriarchal fascism? After all, at the end of most of their films, the man-child becomes a man.
I find this problematic. But I wouldn’t call it fascism or even anti-Semitic. If anything, it denotes a move away from the “little failure” (as Gary Shteyngart calls himself) to a success. This tension is what defines America, today. It’s the tension that is produced by the schlemiel. I notice it. I try not to politicize it.
So when I saw the tweets, the right-wing responses, and Michaelson’s reaction, I decided to step back and present it the whole spectrum. What we have here, as I have argued, is an America that is coming to grips with the “new schlemiel.” Its not Jewish so much as the “everyman.” The question that this ad evokes is the question of what it means to be a young American. What does it mean that some people see themselves through Duck Dynasty while others see themselves through Portlandia or Big Bang Theory? What happens when people watch both programs? Are they confused about whether or not they are an American schlemiel?
Regardless, I want to be careful and say that the equation may be with progressivism and not with pajama-boy-as-Jew. Although I had the brief thought that the Pajama Boy was a Jew and was tempted by it, it occurred to me that this is a new schlemiel, not an old one (that emerged out of Germany, and NOT Eastern Europe). And I would suggest that we don’t use the word ‘fascism” and make such comparisons. Its not the right tact.
We need to find another language for this, one that doesn’t enter into the register of anti-Semitism and suggest that America has more in common with Nazi Germany than ever in its characterizations of the “pajama boy.”
Yes, this is – in major part – a masculinity issue that emerges out of a country that wants to see itself, once again, as a nation at work, not on vacation. If that’s fascist, anti-Semitic, and patriarchal, what does that imply about Communist social-realism or the images that progressives in this country used to signify what it means to be an American?
In other words: how does the new schlemiel fit into the American image? And how do we characterize these kinds of reactions? Is it right to make analogies of Nazi Germany and to argue that the negative schlemiel stereotype (the Jew as man-child) is at work, today?