Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Godwin's Law! And PC!

From a Times review of the Coens' latest, I found this old attack against the brothers' masterpiece Miller's Crossing:

Occasionally the Coens are accused of engaging in grotesque ethnic stereotypes and even of being anti-Jewish. One New York critic took them to task over having Bernie the Shmatte [from Miller's Crossing] whimper and grovel at the feet of a gun-toting gangster “in a wood as bucolic as any birch grove in Poland.”

I would say that this is the most ludicrous piece of criticism I've ever heard, only I don't think it is. I think it's calculated. Miller's casual anti-Semitism is era-appropriate, but the point of the scene described here is that the Jewish character doesn't get killed! And since when are Polish birch groves a symbol of the Holocaust? Am I missing some obscurity here? If Gabriel Byrne had shot Turturro in front of an oven factory or something, there might be a point to be made here. I'm certainly not well-read enough to say for sure that the birch grove metaphor is irrelevant, but for the average person I highly doubt that it is evocative in that way.

It seems to me that the implications of this sort of statement are unexplored. The story of the Binding of Isaac (the Sacrifice of Isaac to Gentiles, though I prefer the Jewish term because it more accurately describes what happens in the story) also includes a Jew begging for his life, presumably takes place in a sylvan area because of the presence of wood, could involve a Jew being burned, and undoubtedly included some whimpering and groveling. Is that story exploitative upon the Holocaust as well? It's one of the key stories in the Jewish tradition. That this critic saw the Holocaust in Miller's Crossing says far more about the critic than it does about the work, as the Coens weren't trying to comment upon it or, indeed, evoke it in any way. Until I read that statement, I would never have thought about that connection.

I tend to dislike the use of the term "political correctness" as I feel it means different things to different people. I've never felt that calling out racism or sexism is "politically correct", other than that it is correct regardless of the modifier. Attacking people who say bitch or nigger is proper because those terms hurt people, and part of living in a society means you have to relinquish your right to be an asshole and try to be sensitive to the needs of others. But stuff like this is something different altogether. There's a difference between, say, saying that we shouldn't use the N-word to describe black people and saying that showing Jewish people suffering is innately anti-Semitic. The former doesn't hurt anyone and might keep racial tensions from fraying a bit, the latter does hurt people--i.e. the Jews--by saying that they cannot be depicted as suffering in certain ways. This sort of political correctness is the sort that can hurt because it is a form of censorship that can impact the way any group is seen by others, and it can provide a distorted picture of Jewish people in general, and that's never been a problem, has it?

Of course, every group in existence has grievance-mongers. Some groups seem to have more than others (white conservatives have made boffo business out of it). I guess Americans of all stripes like to see themselves as victims of coordinated conspiracies--says something about us I guess. I personally don't like to think that way. But I do think there's a clear difference between being PC and just not being an insensitive asshole: sensitivity is about acknowledging the difficulty of the truth and trying not to inflame. Political correctness is about denying the difficulty of the truth and trying to make yourself feel better. The Times quote is pretty clearly the latter.

But, aside from the obvious angle, I think Godwin's Law does apply here as comparing someone to the Nazis is essentially a form of political correctness. The irony, of course, is that the teabaggers that like to compare Obama to Hitler are the same ones that predictably rail against "political correctness" when they are the side that more regularly abuses the concept. Of course, such subtlety seems beyond the town hall screamers.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.