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What Shakespeare Taught Me About Race

My City Journal piece on William Shakespeare's racial vision:

Merchant is not a racist play, not in the literal sense. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, is one of its more sympathetic characters. She’s a Jew, too, and yet her father is told, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory; more between your bloods than there is between red wine and rhenish [white wine].” Jessica’s decency is realized in her marriage to a Christian and her willing conversion. That is, the play does not condemn Jews for their race but only for their religion.  Merchant is very definitely anti-Judaism, but it is not anti-Semitic.

This is one of the things that makes a modern conversation about race virtually impossible, not to say useless: our muddle-headed conflation of inborn and presumably unchangeable genetics with potentially negotiable qualities like culture and belief. In light of centuries of vicious anti-Jewish expulsions, pogroms, massacres, and finally holocaust, a staged smackdown between Christianity and Judaism in which the J-team loses makes us understandably uneasy. Beyond that, the long history of religious violence has taught us that hands-off tolerance toward faith is a foundational pillar of a liberal society. But must we maintain that tolerance at the price of our honesty? In order to keep from killing one another, must we really pretend to believe the happy-talk notion that every creed is as good as every other, that “all religions are a path to God”?

A religion—including the religion of atheism—is a spiritual philosophy with tenets meant to describe the nature of reality and form a vision of the good life in the context of that reality. These—philosophies, tenets, concepts of reality—not only make claims to truth but are also powerful human formatives. They fashion individuals and societies in their own images. As evil as religious persecution is, it is perfectly moral—even sometimes necessary—to compare, criticize, and oppose religious beliefs and rituals, just as we would any other ideas.

Read the whole thing here.