30 days in 58 years

A BBC radio anchor was fired in November 2008 for making racist remarks. She called a taxi service to pick up her daughter, and insisted that they not send an Asian driver with a turban as that “would freak out her daughter”.

It is true that children, specially babies respond well to face types that they are familiar with, and often are scared of unfamiliar facial characteristics. It takes very little to mistrust what we are not familiar with. Conversely, it also take little to familiarize oneself with the other, and learn to trust it. Two films made across a span of 60 years illustrate the same point.

In ‘Gentleman’s Agreement‘ (1947) by Elia Kazan, Kathy Lacey (Dorothy McGuire) suggests that her publisher uncle run an article on anti-Semitism in his newspaper. Her uncle summons one of his star reporters from California to New York for the assignment. Philip Schuyler Green (Gregory Peck) is not very excited about the subject on which reams have already been written to the point of tedium. But his publisher insists that he give it a shot. The easy friendship that develops between Kathy and Philip also serve as an incentive for him to stay on in New York.

Philip is a widower and lives with his mother and son. Kathy is divorced. They are soon engaged, but Philip cannot find the right hook for his article and is keen to give it up. His childhood friend, Dave Goldman (John Garfield), a Jew, also thinks that an article like this is boring. There is nothing new or relevant to be said about anti-Semitism, silence is better. Dave is a soldier back from war. He has been offered a job in New York, and would like to relocate his family from California before he accepts the job. He is living with Philip while he looks for an apartment for his family.

A conversation with Dave sparks off the idea in Philip that the only way that the article can be written well is from the point of view of a Jew. He decides to pretend to be a Jew for 30 days and write about his experience. The fact that he is new to New York helps him in the subterfuge with his mother, son, publisher and Kathy agreeing to keep his secret.

When at an office meeting, the publisher reveals that Philip is a Jew, his secretary confesses to Philip later that she is a Jew herself. In fact, she has changed her identity to be able to work here, as the office supervisor of the newspaper does not hire Jews. She has her own prejudices about Jewish stereotypes and prefers to be nondescript and disassociate herself from them.

Philip slowly discovers the insidious soft face of prejudice, most keenly felt within Kathy herself. Politically correct views do not necessarily translate into politically correct actions. Her liberal views don’t stand their ground when it comes to introducing a Jewish fiancé to her family and friends. She likes to claim that a lot of her friends are Jewish, but when it comes to offering her vacant house to Dave, who is unable to find a house for his family in New York because he is a Jew, she refuses because her neighbors won’t like it.

She admits that though there is no law, which can stop her from giving the house to Dave, there is a gentleman’s agreement between the people who live there, that they will sell or lease their houses only to people like themselves. Philip realizes that it is easier to fight obvious discrimination but the ‘nice’ people are hard to pin down.

The film of course ends with Kathy realizing how wrong she has been, but is slightly unconvincing because her realization is tied with her romantic pursuit of Philip. The film itself relies mostly on discussions about attitudes between various people and tends to be polemical.

It’s disconcerting to observe how the language of prejudice used in the film is still familiar to us after so many years, how little it has changed. 61 years later, you could replace ‘Jew’ with ‘Muslim’, ‘Dalit’, ‘North Indian’ ‘South Indian’ ‘African’ ‘Iraqi’ ‘American’ ‘Irish’ or whatever you choose, and the story would be as relevant.

Philip’s article ‘I was a Jew for 30 days’ is acted out in Morgan Spurlock’s reality television show ’30 days’. One of the episodes, ‘Muslims and America’ (2005) sends a white American devout, practicing Catholic Dave Stacey from Connecticut to live for 30 days in a Muslim home, in a predominantly Muslim locality, Dearborn, Michigan.

As a precondition for participating in the show, Dave has to not only live with a young couple, the Fatehis, but also dress and eat like them. He also has to learn about Islam every day while he is there, and pray with them. Dave goes from someone whose idea of Muslims is “a woman with a veil”, and “a man with an AK47” to someone who finds it imperative to defend Muslims against stereotypical judgments.

Dave fights discomfort at every turn in terms of the way he looks, what he has to eat, how he has to live. For the first time, he realizes what it means to be stared at, to have people skirting him as they pass by, to be searched so minutely at the airport.

The hardest part for Dave is to pray as a Muslim because he feels that he is betraying his own faith by doing so. But his persistent efforts to understand Islam make him realize that it is only the language and the motions of the prayer that differ, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity are only different paths to reach the same God. The climax for him comes when he can actually go to a Friday namaz and pray with meaning.

Intolerance comes mainly from ignorance of the other. Like ghosts and demons in the dark shade of the forest, an unknown other becomes a monster. One film looks at the other, criticizes, and seeks to change the other. The other looks at the self, and seeks to change the self.

In Elia Kazan’s film ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ (1947), the protagonist lives as a Jew for 30 days to write about prejudice. In Morgan Spurlock’s reality show, ‘Muslims and America’ (2005) , Dave Stacey, a contributor lives as a Muslim for 30 days to come to terms with his own prejudice. Both films come to the conclusion that intolerance comes mainly from ignorance of the other.

To read some contrary opinions, go to Debbie Schlussel’s post ‘Morgan Spurlock’s Supersized Islamist BS

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  1. Absolutely wonderful piece, Batul. Cannot but agree more with – ‘It takes very little to mistrust what we are not familiar with. Conversely, it also takes little to familiarize oneself with the other, and learn to trust it.’ If only we all learn to give more attention to the second part…

  2. Schlussel seems to suggest that Stacy is ignorant and has a pre-decided outcome to his documentary, which is contrary to the spirit of the medium. And while the PR machinery for the show might’ve got it wrong by pitching it in that particular way (along with the unsubstantiated Hamas connection in choosing the family), Stacy’s ignorance actually strengthens the idea that the uninformed average American can, and will take the effort to, understand the ‘other’.

    But it’s the comments on the piece that scare me so much. It’s like an untamed wildfire scourging through an increasingly vast collective consciousness. You will find such hate-ridden comments in every pocket targeting the ‘other’ including popular Indian sites such as rediff, etc. Rare is the moderate, and even rarer is the advocate. Are we the real minority?

  3. ‘It takes very little to mistrust what we are not familiar with. Conversely, it also takes little to familiarize oneself with the other, and learn to trust it.’ It’s a real quote we are facing one or the other day in our life. Gr8!! idea and a great blog.

  4. I saw a documentary on Kazan where he said something to the effect that ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ was one of his weaker films. He felt it was a tad too soft and should have been far more volatile and pushing boundaries. Have yet to see the film. Mrs. Me wants to see it only for Gregory Peck. 🙂

    Wonderful blog Batul. I feel people live with prejudices and ferociously pass them down cause of many reasons and LAZINESS seems be one of them. Trying to break prejudice needs consistent efforts that may not have tangible gains. Prejudice is EASY. No bridges to cross, walls to scale, eyes to look into, smiles and hugs to return…..oh so much work!

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