When Mocking Jews Was Cool

When Mocking Jews Was Cool July 17, 2013

Gentleman’s Agreement, directed by Elia Kazan

I hate political correctness.  It is illiberal to police what people think and say, to judge what sort of opinions are acceptable in polite company: who is to saythat the sensibilities of polite company are all that refined?  Who wants their approval anyway?

My dislike of political correctness is the luxury of living in an era awash with it. Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) is a reminder that in other eras—including, roughly, all of them before ours—prejudice and bigotry didn’t have to hide and real people suffered for it.

Gentleman’s Agreement is the story of Philip Green (played with adult gravitas by Gregory Peck, who received one of his five Oscar nominations for the role), a writer who pretends to be Jewish to write an exposé on anti-Semitism.  The pretense works too well, complicating his romance with Kathy (Dorothy McGuire) and endangering his son.  Made in the shadow of the Holocaust, the film won the 1947 Oscars for Best Picture, Director, and supporting Actress, and was nominated for five others.

That the film does not focus on the Holocaust, which does not get a single mention in the film, nor on any other act of violent anti-Semitism—no one gets beat up or killed in this movie—allows it instead to highlight the subtle, often unspoken forms of discrimination in polite circles.  Green moves in the aristocratic crowd of New York high society and New England’s established families.  The denounce anti-Semitism to a man and insist that some of their best friends are Jews.  They all know the correct thing to say.

But Green is denied entry to clubs; turned away at a fancy hotel; encounters awkward silences at society dinners; and finds that word of his Jewishness seems to get around ahead of him so that when he introduces himself to new acquaintances they already know he is “Phil Green, Jew.”  The guest list for one dinner seems to have been culled of those who might have made trouble if they discovered they were dining with a Jew. Phil’s son is taunted and threatened at school.

If the film has a fault, it is that it is too obviously an Important Movie with a Serious Message.  Occasionally the characters are too earnest and there are one too many monologues about the importance of fighting injustice—at one point Phil gives an updated version of Shylock’s famous speech.  I earlier faulted WALL-e for wearing its sanctimonious heart on its sleeve, and Gentleman’s Agreement comes close to the same thing.  What saves it is that, if any story ever had a right to parade it’s own importance, it is a story about anti-Semitism made right after the Holocaust.  The same tone made about a smaller issue would come off as self-serious and pompous.

I was struck by one scene near the end.  Phil’s son is taunted at school.  He comes home shaken and scared.  Phil’s fiancé tries to comfort him by assuring him he isn’t really Jewish.  Phil in turn scolds her.

You’ve only assured him he’s the most wonderful of all creatures–a white Christian American. You instantly gave him that lovely taste of superiority, the poison that millions of parents drop into the minds of children.

The condemnation of white Christian Americans’ self-righteousness and hypocrisy is, today, merely de rigueur—it’s just something you say to clear your throat at the start of a cocktail party to establish your credentials as an appropriately guilty progressive—but it is startling to hear it in a movie from 1947, to hear it with a little passion, and to hear it in a context where it actually meant something and was a little risky to say it.

That gave me some food for thought about the culture of political correctness.  In the 1940s, anti-Semitism was, in elite Waspy circles, politically correct.  White Christian men of the establishment were expected to defend the system of privilege that kept women, blacks, Jews, and others in a position of disadvantage.  Today, anti-Semitism is politically incorrect.  Expressing an anti-Semitic (or sexist, racist, or homophobic) opinion will get you shunned and possibly fired.  The change is for the better—but the fact that there had to be a change tells you that the people who define what an acceptable opinion is don’t always get it right: trusting in the judgment of the culture and its elite opinion-makers is a sure way to find yourself on the wrong side of something at some point.

That, in turn, suggests how shallow political correctness is.  Political correctness is just another word for popular prejudice.  Today, prejudice is against anti-Semites, racists, and so forth.  All told, I’d rather have prejudice be against rather than for such blatant sin and elitism.  Large chunks of the Bible condemn treating the rich with privilege, and one of the distinctive marks of the early church was its egalitarianism towards women, widows, orphans, and the poor.

But at the end of the day, it is still just prejudice—fickle, easily-changed, often more emotive than intellectual.  Fighting against anti-Semitism (and its bigoted cousins) by erecting a system of anti-anti-Semitism amounts to rearranging the prejudices that inevitably pervade civilization.  I’m not saying there is a moral equivalence here—but there is a sociological one in that they are both prejudices.

I belabor the point because cultivating good prejudices may help create a more polite society but they do not remove sin from the human heart.  Our hatred of bigotry should be rooted in our theological understanding that God made all people in his image and are equal in worth and dignity, not in a fear of what other people will think if we express the wrong opinion.  Meanwhile, I wonder if the culture of political correctness cheapens true righteous indignation by giving us a script to follow.  A few paragraphs ago I dismissed the condemnation of white American Christians’ self-righteousness and hypocrisy because it has become too routine and overdone—but self-righteousness and hypocrisy deserve condemnation.  Political correctness is like the boy who cries wolf.

We are far afield from Gentleman’s Agreement.  It is a strong testament to the film that the issues it raises are still pertinent today, no doubt in ways the filmmakers could not have foreseen.  The film is a good picture of what it looks like to fight prejudice when it isn’t popular to do so.  Sadly, there will always be some category of people on the bottom rung of society’s ladder, making this film salutary in any era.

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