Ungentlemanly Agreement

In 1947, 20th Century-Fox won two Academy Awards for a controversial movie that told the story of a journalist (Gregory Peck) who decided to write a story about anti-semitism by masquerading as a Jew. The movie was called Gentleman's Agreement, and I've been thinking about it a lot, this past week, as the debate has raged about who is to blame for the killing of Dr. George Tiller, in Kansas, and Stephen Tyrone Johns, the security guard at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

On Sunday, NY Times columnist Frank Rich called on prominent television and radio anchors to stem the hyperbole and unfounded fear-based accusations that feed the fire of racial and political hatred. A day earlier, Charles M. Blow had expanded the call to less prominent citizens. In listening, after the fact, to the friends and neighbors of killers tell of instances in which the shooter had expressed violent views, Blow said he always wants to ask them, "And when he said or did that, how did you respond?"

It was an echo of one of the most memorable lines in Gentleman's Agreement, when a newly-returned Jewish war veteran, played by John Garfield, is listening to Dorothy McGuire (who plays Peck's WASP girlfriend) defend her position as not anti-semitic. She tells a story of a dinner party where someone told a joke in which a Jewish person was ridiculed.

"I was ill. I was sick with rage and shame. I despised him," she tells Garfield.

"What did you do when he told the joke?" he responds. "What did you say when he finished?"

"I wanted to yell at him," McGuire answers. "I wanted to get up and leave. I wanted to say to everyone at that table, 'why do we sit here and take it when he's attacking everything that we believe in? Why don't we call him on it?'"

"And what did you do?" Garfield presses. 

"I just sat there," McGuire replies. "I felt ashamed. We all just sat there."

"Yeah," Garfield concludes. "And then you left. A man at a dinner table told a joke, and the nice people didn't laugh. They even despised him for it. But they let it pass."

That interchange, and the articles calling for more vigilance against hateful thoughts and beliefs, spark two questions in my mind. First, why don't more of us stand up and do something when we hear ignorant, racist, or bigotry-tinged speech, ideas, or warning signs, as Blow exhorts us to do? And second ... even if all of us "did" something at the dinner parties and motorcycle gatherings around America ... would it really stop an extremist nut-job from pulling the trigger? 

The first is easier to answer. The reason more of us don't stand up and do the "right thing," as Blow advocates, is that there are consequences for doing that. When I was in the 4th grade, the "cool" kids in class were tormenting an awkward boy one day, ripping his coloring paper and taunting him. Filled with righteous indignation, I walked over and gave him my clean coloring paper, taking his tattered sheet for myself, while shooting dagger looks at his tormentors. I was ostracized by all the cool kids for the rest of the year. 

There's tremendous social pressure, even as adults, to not rock the boat, especially against the tide of a group's opinions. At the small, community social level, it generates awkward moments, at best. Nobody is likely to reward you for your gallantry. And that's the mild end of the consequence spectrum. Gentleman's Agreement was a fictional movie. But the circumstances and consequences surrounding it were real. The film was controversial, and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee ended up investigating several people associated with it. Was the actors' involvement in the film a factor? Or was their involvement in the film influenced by their political and ethical beliefs? I don't know enough to say. But two of the actors, Anne Revere (who played Peck's mother in the film) and John Garfield, refused to testify and were blacklisted. Revere didn't appear in another film for 20 years. Garfield was blacklisted and was called to testify against his wife a year later. Shortly before his appearance date, he died of a heart attack ... at the age of 39. 

Most of us don't have that kind of courage, let alone the courage of the protesters in Tehran or Tiananmen Square. Or, at least, not close at hand. Or perhaps we just don't have enough skin in the game to generate that kind of courage. 

But what about the second question? Even if we all decided to be brave, and speak up, and make a fuss ... would it stop an extremist from a heinous act of violence? Surely a joke at a party isn't going to change the world, or the actions of a lunatic, one way or another. But therein lies the real point of Gentleman's Agreement: the joke does matter. Back then, the "gentleman's agreement" referred to the passive, social acceptance of anti-semitism. Perhaps the equivalent today would be the acceptance of raucous politicized accusations.

But every time any loaded joke--subtle or raucous--goes unanswered, the joke-teller, as well as anyone else of similar mind in the room, is spared re-examination of their knee-jerk reactions to a person or group of people, and receives tacit approval for the stereotype, slam, or slur. It becomes one more millimeter okay to think that way, and it reinforces the notion of that person or group as "other." Which makes it easier to think about or conduct violence against them. 

Now, 99.99% of the population would never carry a political, racial, gender, or ethnic joke or slam beyond the righteous feeling of solidarity that comes with witty or even loud rhetoric in a like-minded group (and that goes for left as well as right-minded groups). But somewhere out there, the nut-jobs are listening. And in the roar of that crowd, they hear the potential adulation of a hero. 

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my older sister convinced me that my mother wanted new wallpaper in my parents' bedroom, but that my dad wouldn't let her have it. But, my sister told me, if I did something about it, so she'd have to get new wallpaper, my mom would be thrilled. So I went into my parents' bedroom and tore a big, circular piece of wallpaper off the center of the wall. I would never have done such a thing unprovoked. But I thought my mother was going to see me as a hero. I had images of her hugging me, all smiles and gratitude. I truly did. 

Needless to say, that's not exactly the way things played out. But the point is ... while I wouldn't consider myself a nut-job (at least on most days) ... I had illusions, or delusions, of hero status, based on my belief that there was a receptive audience for my actions. Actions I never would have taken without that fantasy. 

Yes, the rabble-rousers on television and radio hold a match to a tinder-box, and fan the flames for fun and profit. And yes, because they are so visible, they could have the greatest impact on putting out those same flames of dangerous intolerance. But to focus only on them is to ignore how the kindling got so dry and ignitable in the first place. The rabble-rousers of the world couldn't have much effect if there wasn't willing rabble to rouse. The layers are many, and run deep. And they run from hateful words and actions to subtle acquiescence of actions or words on the part of others. The line from that acquiescence to violence is not immediate or direct, but it's traceable. 

Of course, there'd be more opportunities for action if we mixed our social groups more than we typically do. Most of us seek out and socialize with like-minded souls who reinforce our views. Which is a whole 'nother subject. But most of us also can recall moments when someone around us made some hurtfully ignorant comment, joke, or slam against a politician, group, race or individual. To respond quietly but forcefully requires knowing something more detailed about the subject, which takes diligence and effort. It also takes the patience and willingness to engage. And it requires the courage to create a socially awkward situation and be labeled whatever it is we might be labeled -- sympathizer, idiot, or humor-less party-pooper--if only to prevent an assumption of group agreement and reinforcement of whatever ignorance or fever might accompany it. 

It's a tall order. Always has been. If it were otherwise, Gentleman's Agreement never would have been made.