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Beauty and the Beast

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Sixty years ago, in 1947, Gentleman’s Agreement won three Academy Awards, including Directing, Supporting Actress, and Best Picture. (It was nominated for eight, including screenplay, actor, and actress).

I hadn’t planned to write about Gentleman’s Agreement when I watched it for the first time on DVD recently, but it sparked so many thoughts about recent headlines, that I was inspired to make some connections.

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You

Peck watches his friend confront a bold-faced bigot
Peck watches his friend confront a bold-faced bigot

Gregory Peck plays Philip Green, a writer who passes himself off as Jewish to write about anti-Semitism.

The movie takes its subject matter very seriously. At times, it seems morally simplistic. It is obvious that we shouldn’t judge people by their race or religion, so any movie that earnestly spells that out for us is in danger of looking childish and naive. There are a few moments in Gentleman’s Agreement that come across this way, but thankfully not as many as I’d feared.

The movie tries pretty hard to work some nuance into its message. The bold-faced bigot is easy to dismiss and confront. But the little subconscious bigotries are the ones that really hurt. For example, Peck’s character prepares two resumes, one as Mr. Green, one as Mr. Greenberg, and we assume that he’ll get one acceptance and one rejection. In fact, his own personal secretary had submitted her resume under an Anglicized name after getting a rejection letter.

By the way, you can still do this today. A section in the popular book Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner describes research done in the early 2000s. Identical resumes were sent to various companies. Those with African-American-sounding names attached were statistically less likely to be called for an interview than their non-African-American-sounding counterparts.

What’s really insidious about prejudice is that the hiring managers probably don’t even realize they are being prejudicial. Suppose your identical resumes have a typo. If the hiring manager is predisposed to like you, he or she will give you the benefit of the doubt and overlook the typo as unimportant. On the other hand, the same typo on someone else’s resume might be taken as evidence of sloppiness. The hiring manager needn’t even realize what is coloring his or her perception for there to be a statistical likelihood of prejudice.

Free Pass Revoked

In the movie, Peck’s character becomes very sensitive to every little slight. (Frankly, it gets a little frustrating.) What he finds unforgivable, though, is when his friends choose to overlook those small slights. It’s that attitude of acceptance that is the worst part of prejudice. Taking even the smallest action, rather than letting these offenses pass, is what Peck demands from his friends.

He talks to an old Jewish friend about challenging the management at a “restricted” resort. The friend says it won’t bring about actual change, which Peck concedes, but it would feel good to fight back, to take a step, to not just let it pass. Even if the resort owners don’t change their policy, the act of disapproving might force the management and the customers to confront their own bigotry, to bring it out into the daylight.

Again I thought of recent events. Radio personality Don Imus finally lost his job over his racist remarks. Peck’s character would probably remind us that for years, Imus got a free pass from his employers, listeners, and advertisers, who let similarly racist remarks pass.

Lest any apologists bemoan the “censorship” of Don Imus, let us remember that it is not censorship to condemn those who say reprehensible things. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from criticism. CBS has every right to fire Don Imus for being a bigot, whether it’s a business decision, or a moral decision. It has nothing to do with censorship.

Sixty More Years

At the end of Gentleman’s Agreement, Peck’s character’s mother says that she would like to live a long time so that she could see a world without religious prejudice, or even live long enough to see the beginnings of such a world.

If she were alive today, she’d be over a hundred years old. She would find a lot fewer “restricted” country clubs and resorts, no legal segregation anywhere in the United States, and a lot of progress in the area of civil rights. Sixty years is a long time and we have come a long way.

Unfortunately, she’d only have to read a few newspapers and blogs to see also see that the issues raised in 1947 are not quaint and passé.

During the week Imus got fired, I read on a blog called The Atheist Ethicist some posts that could have come straight out of Gregory Peck’s mouth. The blog called on readers not to politely accept prejudice, not to give bigots — anti-atheist or otherwise — a free pass. For example, seven state constitutions specifically forbid atheists from holding public office. Even if petitions to remove this restriction were doomed to fail in a popular vote, Peck’s character would probably appreciate the notion of forcing the bigots to come out into the sunshine and publically defend the indefensible.

Maybe sixty years isn’t long enough.