Friday, December 28, 2018
I am a long-running fan of Doctor Who. One of the things I respected about the show has been its ability to be liberal in ways that were subtle and did not get in the way of smart storytelling for people of different ages and across the political spectrum. This was possible because the writers knew how to pick their shots and let their values flow from the narrative. Doctor Who, at a fundamental level, is a show about tolerance founded in a curiosity about the other. The hero is a time-traveling alien, who takes people on journies across time and space. From this perspective, human concerns about race, religion, sexuality, and gender are going to seem rather provincial. There is no need to preach tolerance. On the contrary, the show's valuing of tolerance should emanate naturally from its very premise. This brings me to my problem with the newest season. While I was excited for Jodie Whittaker becoming the first female Doctor, as she was excellent in Broadchurch, the show has gotten into the habit of wearing its politics on its sleeve which is not only boring, it is also counter-productive for getting its message across.
This embrace of liberal polemics goes beyond giving the Doctor his usual humanist speeches in keeping with a character who is a talker. Furthermore, the show regularly used to turn its liberalism on the Doctor. From his own perspective, the Doctor is the liberal humanist that he is because he has seen the dark side alternative within himself when he became the War Doctor during the Time War and was willing to destroy his own people, the Time Lords, in order to rid the universe of the Daleks. This sense of guilt, most notable in Christopher Eccleston and more recently with Peter Capaldi, often allows the Doctor to empathize and try to reason with the villains. I cannot think of a show in which the "big scary monster" is more likely to not simply be a bad guy in need of destroying. This willingness to avoid easy answers was part of what made Doctor Who's lessons in tolerance so effective; it habituated viewers, in ways like no other show, to question the Manichean good versus evil framework that comes so naturally to us that ultimately is the root of intolerance.
This hard-earned embrace of tolerance is discarded in this new season in an effort to engage in virtue-signaling. Just in case anyone doubted where the show stood on race and gender, not only is the Doctor now a woman but she now has, as companions, a black guy, a Pakistani woman plus a middle-aged white man to provide some diversity. There are episodes dealing with Rosa Parks and seventeenth-century witch trials in England. The show bravely teaches us that racism and sexist witch-dunkings are bad. A useful contrast here is the last Capaldi episode which gets much of its humor from confronting the highly patronizing attitude toward women in the early incarnations of the show back in the 1960s.
I would like to focus on one particular incident from the Witchfinders episode, which, for all of its flaws, is partially redeemed by Alan Cummings' portrayal of King James I. The Doctor confronts a witch-hunter, who quotes from the King James Bible, "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" (Exodus 22:18). The Doctor responds: "In the Old Testament. There is a twist in the sequel, 'love thy neighbor.'" First, on a basic factual level, the Doctor is mistaken. "Love thy neighbor" comes from the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:18. The New Testament simply quotes the Old. The second but more disturbing issue here is that the show is playing into the stereotype of the Old Testament as the book of judgment in contrast to the New Testament with its love and tolerance. This is the true foundation for Christian anti-Judaism, far more pernicious than the notion that the Jews killed Jesus.
While Jews have been convenient scapegoats, Christianity has never truly needed to blame Jews for killing Jesus, particularly those Jews who were not alive during the first century CE. The real Jewish challenge for Christianity has always been that Christianity could never escape the fact that the New Testament serves to modify an already present scripture. Unless there was something wrong with Judaism that Christianity could realistically improve on (obviously, neither religion has ever lacked for pious hypocrites), Christianity makes no sense. For traditional Orthodox Christianity, the solution has been that the Old Testament lacked the Son of God dying to atone for the sins of the world. This, though, raises the question of what was the point of the Old Testament if it could not save. The answer is that the Old Testament teaches us about sin by showing us how we utterly fail to keep the Law (Romans 7:7-25). As such, Christians need to read the Old Testament as the law that condemns despite everything the Old Testament has to say to the contrary. If the God of the Old Testament knows that we are imperfect sinners but will forgive us if only we truly want it then there is no need for Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus becomes a denial of God's perfect forgiveness.
To be fair to traditional Christians, their anti-Judaism can be kept in check with an Augustinian embrace of man's total depravity. From this perspective, Jews, even as Christ-killers, can never be worse than depraved humanity as a whole. Any other group of human sinners would have failed God's test just as badly. At least the Jews have the advantage that God chose them despite their utter depravity.
With modern liberal Christianity, this problem of anti-Judaism actually gets worse. As Amy-Jill Levine argues in The Misunderstood Jew: the Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, liberal Christianity's desire to escape from traditional dogma easily turns into a backdoor for precisely the kind of negative stereotypes of Jews that it was supposed to have transcended. If the point of Jesus was not that he was the Son of God sent to atone for sin then it must be that Jesus taught a new value system. This means that the old system must have been really backward and in need of replacement. For example, if Jesus came to liberate women then Judaism must be some oppressive Taliban like religion. If Jesus helped the poor then Judaism must be the religion of the greedy rich. If human beings are not all depraved then there was something wrong specifically with the Jews that caused them to reject Jesus' message of peace and love.
If you think that attacking the Jewish scriptures is not an attack on members of the Jewish religion then consider what it means to attack the Koran. If the Old Testament (or the Koran) does not simply have problematic texts that believers have to struggle with but teaches hatred then that religion is tainted and its practitioners must be condemned as haters as long as they do not formally abandon their religion. We would not accept "moderate" Nazis with their "liberal" reading of Mein Kampf as anything other than a sick joke and a cynical attempt to make anti-Semitism acceptable in polite society. By contrast, we can easily ignore those Jews in the past who might have killed Jesus as not real Jews as they failed to live up to the "true" teachings of Judaism, which is peace.
The fact that Christians believe in the Old Testament as opposed to the Koran only adds to the problem. The Muslim reading his Koran is outside of the Christian framework and can, therefore, be ignored. The Old Testament practicing Jew as an opponent who is also part of the Christian framework all too easily becomes the embodiment of Christianity's failures, allowing Christian's to pass off whatever they secretly hate about themselves as really being the fault of the Jews. Since this Jew is a Christian construct without any real connection to actual Jews, it can flourish even in the absence of Jews. Hatred of the this theological Jew construct could fester unconnected to people who actually practice Judaism until it manifests itself in the actual murder of Jews. For example, the medieval unbelieving Christian, who could not accept that Jesus really was present in the Eucharist was transformed into a Jew in spirit. This, in turn, got actual Jews killed as host desecrators.
This same formula helps explain witch hunts. You start with the construct of the witch as a servant of Satan. Since this fantasy has no connection to real people, it can evolve into something ever more sinister, capable of literally committing any depravity no matter how heinous, until someone is made to wear that label and die for it. In the hands of Doctor Who, witch-hunters in seventeenth-century England (which officially had expelled its Jews in 1290) become people in funny hats who quote the Old Testament without seeming to realize that there exists a New Testament, in essence, Jews. This is dangerous because, despite the fact that Jews were not responsible for European witch trials, viewers are being primed to associate Jews, as followers of a "harsh" Old Testament law, with witch hunting and ultimately with the forces of intolerance.
To be clear, I do not think the writers of a certain British science-fiction show actively hate Jews or consciously meant any harm. Furthermore, I do not believe that I am some paragon of tolerance who never makes harmful prejudiced comments. I beg the indulgence of members of the practically limitless groups that I am not part of for my ignorance. You are human beings (or perhaps aliens) and my failure to treat you as such is simply an oversight on my part. If you are a member of such a group, feel free to point out where I have treated you unfairly. Since I am not claiming to be a tolerant person, just someone who tries to be, I have no reason to reject your criticism and might just take it to heart. Likewise, I should forgive the writers for not being on top of the history of anti-Semitism and its role in Christian biblical exegesis. There is plenty of evil out there in the world and I should not take it personally if writers wish to focus on other issues besides for anti-Semitism.
Here is the problem though. The show has now made a point of its great tolerance, allowing itself the moral authority to treat those possessing the various failings of very real historical prejudices as caricatures. We are no longer dealing with a show in which tolerance is a tool for self-examination but a weapon to castigate others. If the writers believe that they are some model of enlightened tolerance for others to look up to then any demonstration of prejudice, even a small one, ceases to be innocent. We now have no reason to assume that they would accept that, even through oversight, they are guilty of prejudice as this would undermine the very moral authority that saves them from being Puritan Pharisee Jews, whose obsession with the prejudices of others has blinded them to their own prejudices.
Just so we are clear, I have no objection to Doctor Who criticizing the Old Testament. It has many problematic passages. My problem is that the show did so in a way that is factually incorrect. Worse, it used this falsehood as a means of propping up the New Testament, making the central argument of Christian anti-Jewish biblical exegesis. This is not an innocent issue but one with real blood attached to it. The writers owe the Jewish community an apology and a commitment to educate itself about anti-Semitism. Perhaps this can be the basis for an episode next season. Might I suggest that the Doctor team up with the Golem of Prague to stop a blood libel?