The Baiter and the Baited

“Stag at Bay on a Rocky Shore”
Thomas Blinks, 1860-1912

The Baiter and the Baited

We are back from a week of my neuropathy treatments at the Loma Linda clinic in California.  The main progress this time has been in locating more precisely the regions of the body – ahem, my body – where inflammation blocks the flow of blood to the micro-vessels and the neurons they feed.  Symptoms are not yet improved, so far as I can tell, though sonograms do register progress at the micro-level.  If we had six weeks to spend consecutively, we are told that we might see substantial symptomatic improvements.  But we don’t have six weeks to spend at one time.  At most, at intervals, we will have a single week at a time.

I wonder: what IS this handicap?   I mean, really.  Was there something my body would have once wanted to tell me, but the physical medium has become the message and meanwhile the original message has got obscured?

One of the friends who joined us at brunch was Jerry’s attorney in California.  He reads eclectically and brought this bit of news from his polymathic researches: genes are no longer seen as programming the body.  The latest view is that genes are the data base from which the single cell selects certain data and rejects others in designing the future human body.   As to what determines (or rather, influences) the cell when it makes its choices, that’s an open question – but probably no single thing.

If this view sticks, it will be bad news for philosophic determinists, materialists and functionalists, but for me it’s just interesting.  (Long ago, I told my students not to invest their talents in philosophic materialism because it’s going belly up.)

What’s interesting about this view is its implication that intelligence – or something equivalent to intelligence – goes all the way down to the single cell.  Actually, it’s not all that surprising.  The last time I read a respected tome in ethology, I learned that even the lowly worm has memory.  What is more, if you cut him in half, each half will crawl away, still remembering …

Jerry’s attorney friend drew the moral that we need to “talk to our bodies” more than we do.  If we talk to our bodies, they might answer back and actually tell us how they feel.  Maybe we get sick because they find no other way to be heard.

We had made a dinner appointment for one of our nights in Riverside.  It was with a philosophic colleague of Jerry’s whom he did not know well, their paths having crossed briefly some years back.  I was looking forward to meeting a colleague whom Jerry was disposed to like.  His wife, who was in another profession, would be joining as well.

We were not far into the evening when the colleague turned, looking directly into my face, to tell me the following: he had attended a lecture by a Princeton historian who described an eleventh-century incident from the First Crusade.  A contingent of German Crusaders had paused in their trajectory to the Holy Land, turning aside to butcher a Jewish population encountered along their way.   The massacre, according to the Princeton historian, was grasped in Jewish memory so tenaciously that it had worked its way into the Jewish prayer book, the siddur.  The wax [not his word] of Jewish memory was so deeply grooved by this particular pogrom that – to this very day – Jews will never trust a Christian!  (And of course, gosh, the Holocaust only made it worse!)

When I write down this preposterous nonsense, from here it’s easy to see that I was being baited.  But when you are expecting a pleasant social hour with a collegial couple and you’ve put on something pretty, you’re not all suited up for combat.

I made the cardinal mistake of trying to correct a good faith “misunderstanding.”  Of course, it was no such thing.  It was baiting.  Let me break that down into its components.

  1. Apart from my obvious Jewishness, there was no reason for a philosophic colleague to tell me such a story.  We had not been discussing the Crusades.

  2. In the historical record of anti-Jewish acts, there has been such a cascade of defamations masked as theology, despoilations, expulsions and massacres, before and since the eleventh century, that it’s unreasonable to imagine pre-twentieth-century Jewish minds affected by that one pogrom alone.

  3. If one were to assume that there exists a boundaried array of “Jewish attitudes” to be parsed at our dinner table, then I – not the Gentile Princeton historian – would be the one to advise about them.

  4. In the alleged conglomerate of Jewish attitudes, there was underlying insult, to wit: the surface good behavior of any Jew masks implacable bigotry — a prejudice dating back to one bad incident in the eleventh century – but now applied to all Christians regardless of their character, whether just or unjust.  So Christians are herewith forewarned to be wary of Jews, no matter how nice they might seem.  Jews are out to get you.  They want vengeance for the First Crusade.

Does that about cover it?  Maybe.  I hope so.

Although from here it seems obvious that the colleague was actually baiting me, I didn’t quite get it in time.  Jerry, who’s usually pretty good at gauging the forces in the room, didn’t get it either till we both had time to revisit it later.  My real concern isn’t this particular case of l’esprit de l’escalier (the witty riposte that we only think of as we descend the stair to the exit).

I want to know why I have this neuropathy.

I would like to understand my body.  Is it trying to tell me something?  If so, it must have tried in other ways.  To what am I not listening?

On our flights to and from California, I had a chance to reread the initial chapters of A Good Look at Evil.  The book struck me as, if you’ll forgive me, profound.  That is, it’s the product of thinking that is not borrowed, not second hand, not done to make a splash or vindicate an established consensus.  It’s a quest for truth about good and evil, conducted at the frontier of that quest.  It’s quite exhaustive, detailed and often surprising.  Whenever, since its publication, I’ve given talks based on the book, reactions have been dramatic and real.

In the years leading up to its expanded reissue, could I have sensed that I had in hand something that would obligate me to step forward to present it publicly?  Could this walking handicap be my resistance to that summons?

I decided to treat myself more lovingly and ask my legs, in a gentler way,

What ails you?

Now it could be that the recent incident has colored the response from my legs.  Anyway, this is what they replied, so far as I could hear them.

We are terrified to step forward

in a Jewish body. 

It doesn’t matter what medical remedies you find.

We just won’t do it.

Since this reluctance is sufficiently reasonable for the purposes of the body I’m in, it seems to me kinder to concede to my legs the prudential realism of their concern.  Here is how I could answer them.

Hey little legs,

you’re not crazy. 

There really is a pack of dogs

out there.

That said, it’s statistically unlikely that I will be literally murdered by a hater of Jews.  In the meantime, my work summons me to step forward and say what I know.  Only, in the present circumstances, 

a gentle and kindly self-understanding 

is probably appropriate.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to The Baiter and the Baited

  1. Certainly an odd evening … full of anticipation, only to end on a sour note. Thanks for sharing the uncomfortable moment … and all the rest about legs and going or not going somewhere.

    • Abigail says:

      Hi Tom, It’s great to hear from you. Life isn’t always comfortable, as we’ve all noticed, but it’s a lot more comfortable if we can share the bumpy road — not just the smooth part.

  2. Abigail says:

    Hi Ken & what a Comment! I laughed out loud at the way you put it all together in a hilarious package. I’ll be Thinking Pink from now on. (Also thinking Rich, Young and Beautiful. Why not?)

  3. Ken Kaplan says:

    Hello Abigail – Interesting way to look at dis-ease. Most evidence supports the hypothesis that our “thoughts become things” all the way down to gene expression. Check out “The Biology of Belief” by Bruce Lipton if you’re curious about the topic.

    Just for fun, reverse the conversation in your post. Legs to Abigail…”What ails you.” – Your reply -“I am terrified to step forward…”.

    Your conscious mind has issued orders that your subconscious mind is carrying out. It’s an automatic response…so the legs can’t help you realize that fearing the pack of dogs is similar to feeding them – which may keep them hanging around.

    As for the dinner companion…no need to let him take up any mental bandwidth. You choose where you place your attention. It’s fine if the guy thinks he’s right and better if he can’t get a rise out of you. Fishermen hate when they get no nibbles. Ask him about the weather…and the waiter for your check.

    Perhaps baiter and baited are one and the same?

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