Sunday, May 29, 2011

"The Kikey Ones": Bieganski as a Support for Polish Identity and Polish Self-Hatred

Phil Green (Gregory Peck) schools Miss Wales (June Havoc) in "Gentleman's Agreement" 1947.

Phil Green, a handsome magazine journalist, has just revealed to Miss Elaine Wales, his secretary, a cool and soignée blond, that he is a Jew.

Miss Wales relaxes her guard. She reveals that she, too, has disguised her identity in order to pass, in order to be perceived as a Gentile, in order to work at this prestigious publication.

In fact, Miss Wales had to change her name to get her current job as a secretary. Her real name had been Estelle Walovsky. When she applied for jobs as Estelle Walovsky, she received no offers. When she applied for the same job, with the same CV, as Elaine Wales, she was hired. The job she received, via this subterfuge, was as Phil Green's secretary.

Green is outraged. He tells his boss that the company must hire any qualified applicant, regardless of religion.

But Miss Wales is not happy. She tells Phil Green. Their conversation, below:

Miss Wales: You're practically inviting any type at all to apply.

Green: Any type? What do you mean?

Miss Wales: Mr. Green, you don't want things changed around here, do you? Even though you are a writer, and it's different for writers.

Green: How?

Miss Wales: Get one wrong one in here, and it'll come out of us. It's no fun being the fall guy for the kikey ones.

Green: Words like yid and kike and kikey and nigger and coon make me sick no matter who says them.

Miss Wales: But, sometimes I even say it about me. Like if I'm about to do something I know I shouldn't I say, ''Don't be such a little kike.'' That's all. Let one objectionable one in here –

Green: What do you mean by "objectionable?"

Miss Wales: Loud and too much rouge –

Green: This magazine doesn't hire any loud, vulgar girls. Why should they start?

Miss Wales: You know the sort that starts trouble in a place like this and the sort that doesn't, like you or me –

Green: You mean because we don't look especially Jewish, because we're OK Jews, with us it can be kept comfortable and quiet?

Miss Wales: I didn't say –

Green: Miss Wales, I hate anti-Semitism and I hate it from you or anybody who's Jewish as much as I hate it from Gentiles.
June Havoc plays Miss Wales

Recently Tygodnik Powszechny posted, on the magazine's facebook webpage, a link to their coverage of "Bieganski."

Several posters, with speed, alacrity and hammer-like emphasis – no nuance, no room for discussion – rushed to insist that Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype, is no stereotype; rather, Poles really are lowlifes, stupid, bigoted, crude, con artists, the worst. There was no need to cite social science research, or to compare Poles with any other ethnic group. Poles are the nadir. Period.

Not all posts contained this content. Many did. And they received "like" votes.

These are people posting in the Polish language, on the webpage of a Polish publication. One can assume that the posters are themselves Polish.

An example of a comment: A Polish person was overheard referring to African Americans as "asfalt." Ipso facto, Poles are the world's worst bigots.

No denying. Referring to an African American as "asfalt" is racist and disgusting.

Italian Americans refer to African Americans as "mulignan."

Jews refer to African Americans as "schwartzes."

Arabs refer to blacks as "abdi" – the Arabic word for black and the word for slave.

I live in multicultural New Jersey. All these phrases and attendant attitudes are part of my day-to-day life.

I don't mention this reality to excuse any Poles who use the word "asfalt." I mention this because nothing about ethnicity in America can be understood in isolation. That would be obvious to anyone, but to the posters insisting that Poles are the unquestioned nadir, this reality is not necessary.

What was necessary is for these posters was to rush forward and insist the worst about the Poles.

Why? It's counterintuitive.

In attempting to explain the situation to me, my facebook friends talked about current tensions in Polish society: the post-communist, modernization, "wojna polsko-polska." Others mentioned Poles who miss the mostly rural, devoutly Catholic and traditional past v. Poles eager to modernize.

That's all true and important and good.

But there is something else going on.

Here's my best guess:

Poles and Polonians know about what I call "Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype."

They know that Poles are understood as the nadir, the bad guy, the irredeemable beast.

They have two choices.

They can fight that stereotype.

Given that the stereotype is so all pervasive, they will probably lose. They will lose arguments, friendships, respect, jobs, funding.

Or, they can make the "correct" choice, in a Darwinian sense. They can align themselves with the power group, the overwhelming tide of opinion, in America, England, Germany, the scholars, the newspapers, the films, the museums, the novels, the websites about poetry, the paperback bestseller – all amply documented in "Bieganski" the book and this blog – that participate in rewriting the Holocaust, American immigration history, American labor history, and current American multicultural realities by exploiting Bieganski, the Brute Polak stereotype.

For the enhancement of their own survival, their own earning power, their own social networks, their own status, they can rush to say, yes, yes, Poles really are the worst.

And, by saying this, they also say – and there is no need to state this overtly – "I'm not one of those brute Polaks. I'm one of the superior, evolved people. Just like you. Because I see and say how bad other Poles are."

In other words, they play Miss Wales' game.

Me?

The late, great John Garfield is one of my favorite actors. Like me, he was the working class child of Eastern European immigrants. Like my dad, he was sent to reform school.

Garfield couldn't play Miss Wales' game if he wanted to. As old timers might have said, "He had the map of Israel all over his face." He was politically active in a politically incorrect way – yes I identify – and he died young, of a heart attack.

There's a scene in "Gentleman's Agreement" where Garfield just can't take it any more. He stands up, and he punches a bigot out.

Miss Wales is a nice lady. But I'm with Garfield – aka Jacob Julius Garfinkle.

It's better to die on your feet than live on your knees.
John Garfield Stands Up

15 comments:

  1. My Polish experience is almost exclusively with Polish-Americans. I have found that they for the most part tend to be reclusive, self-isolating. They tend not to want to have much if anything to do with other Polish-Americans or to identify themselves as Polish Americans.

    I have also found that it is hard to change their views on their ethnicity.

    It's too bad because with their numbers in this country they could be accomplishing great things for themselves and for Poland.

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  2. I am not of Polish decent; there my be distinct differences in the Polish-American experience that allude me.

    I do, however, recognize the behavior Mr. Guzlowski mentions in his post:self-isolating. Both sides of my family hail from Appalachia, going back at least 150 years. These Scotch-Irish immigrants too self-isolated when they moved to the "big city." They did not talk much about where they were from and when they did they revealed that they had internalized much of what the rest of the world thought about poor, white, ignorant "mountaineers." They were actually ashamed of their "roots" and they rarely spoke of their kin. When they did, their descriptions relied heavily upon the stereotypical "hillbilly." Remember the "Beverly Hillbillies?" Enough said.

    On the other hand, my husband's family, both sides from Punjab, India, are very, very proud of being Indo-Canadian. My father in law made sure that his Canadian born children had a positive impression of India and he built a house there after retiring in Canada, to ensure that future generations would have a place to call home on Punjabi soil. Perhaps cross cultural and comparative studies might reveal common themes and practical solutions. Thank you for debunking the "brute Polak" stereotype.

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  3. Nancy, I really like your post. I see some similarity between the Brute Polak and the White Trash / Trailer Trash / Hillbilly. Both are people that elite academics can and do disrespect with no apparent awareness.

    I think Poor, White, Southern Christians are a very maligned group. I used to malign them myself, without any thought or conscience, until I moved to southcentral Indiana, and encountered poor, white, christian Southerners, and discovered that they are the same as anyone else -- some nice, some not, some smart, some not so smart, but not at all the monsters pop culture makes them out to be.

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  4. I am glad you are writing about these important themes - racism, stereotyping, etc. across all genres so to speak. My mother's brother had to change his Polish name Kostrzewski - to Koster - to advance in the Marine Corps. He fought at Guadalcanal. I remember my mother telling me how devastated my grandparents were by their only son's choice, they considered his loss of his name to be a serious defection from their pride in being Polish. A pride they would pass on to their children even if the new world made doing so extremely difficult. Speaking up and speaking out and making a habit of doing so takes a toll no matter what ethnic allegiances one embraces. Christina Pacosz

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  5. Christina, thank you so much for posting about your uncle who had to change his name from Kostrzewski to Koster for success, even though he had fought at Guadalcanal.

    Breaks my heart. Don't know what else to say.

    I'm glad you spoke of this.

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  6. My Polish mother encouraged me to change my name from Zbigniew to John (my middle name). She was sure my life would be easier. Even when I thought about changing it as an adult, she protested.

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  7. the other day a right wing radio talk show host was dissing Zbigniew Brzezinksi. Maybe ZB deserved to be dissed; I don't really keep up on him.

    The host kept mispronouncing the name.

    I thought, geez, this guy has some prominence. You've mentioned his name at least twenty times. At least pronounce it correctly.

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  8. Peter RechniewskiMay 31, 2011 at 1:33 AM

    I've used Peter and not Piotr since coming to Australia in the 1950s and and frankly I prefer it in an English speaking environment because I don't have to deal with the constant mispronunciations followed by corrections and embarrassed apologies. My father used 'Rech' and not Rechniewski in business dealings much to the relief of his clients, most of whom knew the 'long' version. However, he never contemplated changing his Polish name which had already been changed once from Rechtszaft to Rechniewski. As long as there's respect without pressure people can adjust with dignity and retain their sense of identity. It's enough for me to be called 'Piotr' when I go to Poland and to be complemented on my accent. Of course, such experiences are not universal and that's sad.

    One of my colleagues, a "deep" multiculturalist, objected to the overseas Chinese students changing their names from Xue Xing, Xumeng and even more difficult names to Betsy, Polly and Daisy despite the fact that these girls preferred to be called by names that weren't mispronounced.

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  9. This is plain silly.
    I'm a Pole. Not a Polish-American, a true citizen of Poland. I don't feel any pressure from Americans or English or Germans. I see museums and graves of Polish heroes every day as I commute. And I think I can safely say that the Poles really [b]are [/b]scum. Not all the Poles. Not every single Pole. But there is something horrible in this nation, starting from racism, sexism or homophobia, from uneducated worker in the bus to the incumbent (and previous) president of the country.

    Why complain about Poles? Maybe because we can? Maybe because after the rule of Communists or nationalists like League of Polish Families it's time to talk about things like racism, or failure to coexist with neighbors, or pogroms before, after and during WWII? Maybe it's time to take off rose-colored glasses and admit that we weren't heroes?

    Don't get this wrong, I really like this blog, but not everything has to be a defensive reaction to WASP-Americans.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Jakub, thank you for your comment.

    Your comment misses the point of both the book "Bieganski" and the blog post, above. You are fighting against a straw man, and offering a false dichotomy.

    "take off rose-colored glasses"

    There is zero evidence, none, in my blog posts or in my book that I am wearing rose colored glasses.

    Straw man.

    "it's time to talk about things like racism, or failure to coexist with neighbors, or pogroms before, after and during WWII?"

    These are discussed at length in my book, "Bieganski." They are mentioned on this blog, where appropriate.

    Another straw man.

    These are also discussed at length in popular and elite media.

    Jakub, I appreciate your sharing your thoughts because it's good to know what people are thinking, but your post does not offer an honest reflection of what has been posted here. In that sense, it is false.

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  11. I read Jakub's comment about Poles being scum. I'm not sure how to respond to a Pole living in Poland who thinks the majority of his countrymen and women are sexist, homophobic, racist. I don't think yelling at him will help. I think the proper response perhaps is to shrug and move on in sorrow.

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  12. This is what I think is happening:

    Jakub is locked into a dichotomic worldview in which only two choices are possible:

    1.) You are wearing rose colored glasses. You think all Poles are heroes.

    2.) You focus on, say, the Kielce pogrom or the Jedwabne atrocity, and you conclude that all Poles are scum.

    What "Bieganski" argues is that neither one of those two stances does the work necessary to see reality clearly.

    Jakub is missing that, because the book is saying something relatively new and complex. He hasn't read the book, or this blog, with any seriousness.

    He sees that I protest the characterization of all Poles as scum, and so, given that his mind is locked into the black/white dichotomic stances outlined above, he is convinced that I and others reading and posting here are right wing traditional Catholic nationalists who deny historical realities.

    Jakub has been failed by academia and popular culture. He doesn't get it that the world is round. He's still in a worldview that is the moral equivalent of "the world is flat."

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you for your astute analysis, but no, I don't think you're a right-wing nut. And I'm not talking about just history - but about the present. Sadly, I'm living in a country where around 70% of the inhabitants wouldn't accept a female president - not to mention a black one.

    All I'm saying is that Polish self-hatred has its reasons. Honestly, I read the blog, and I'd really like to read the book some day - but I also live in Poland, I drink in Polish pubs, I watch Polish TV and I know how petty and churlish Poles can be to anyone who's not 100% Catholic Pole. Once again, I'm not referring to Polish immigrants or Polish-Americans, but to Polish citizens.

    You don't have to explain to me that Polish-Jewish relations are complex (not to mention other minorities - I have some Romani blood in my veins) and that reconciliation isn't easy. 'Rose-colored glasses' weren't referring to you, but to many Poles solely blaming 'zydokomuna' - Jewish communists for everything evil in Poland.

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  14. Jakub, thanks for your response.

    I appreciate your reports. I have no reason to doubt you. You drink in Polish pubs and encounter churlish chauvinists.

    No problem so far.

    Here is where you lose me --

    1.) You're not talking, at all, about the same thing I'm talking about, and you don't seem to realize that.

    The main point of "Bieganski" is very much NOT that Polish drunks are charming multiculturalists.

    I may write that book some day, but more research is needed.

    Any charming, multicultural Polish drunks reading this -- please contact me.

    No.

    "Bieganski" is an analysis of a stereotype in American, and Western, academic and popular culture.

    And it's irrefutable.

    Want to refute it?

    Please buy the book, read it, and refute it.

    Then we can talk.

    2.) Cross cultural comparison is missing from your post.

    As it happens, I've visited drinking events in Africa, Asia, Europe, on both coasts and in the heartland of North America.

    Do you really think that Hispanics in bars in Paterson, NJ, or Hoosiers in bars in south central Indiana, or gay men in bars in the Castro, or Sango speaking Africans standing around drinking palm wine, or academics in bars on elite university campuses, are any different from drunks in bars in Poland?

    They're not, Jakub.

    Human beings tend to chauvinism, especially when they are among their own and they are drunk.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Interesting. My father himself does not communicate with other Poles and my mother doesn't either. To them, my desire to keep my heritage is amusing/fills them with pride/make them cringe. It's so complex. And it stems from multiple centuries of other cultures pervading ours and instilling some levels of self-hatred. And let's face it, we are a people from several different tribes, one of whom became the dominant one, so there had to be tension there.

    I suppose it's the same as some Americans who I have met who talk badly about other Americans and I don't mean in terms of one group against another, I mean Americans in general.

    I wonder if this attitude also has anything to do with some Poles feeling that other Poles are not Polish enough. Such as myself, being basically raised in the USA, to some Poles I will never be Polish enough. Or to one reader of mine, who's parents came over the USA and had her, just like my brother, so they will never be Polish enough. Or another blogger friend of mine who came over a few years ago, married an American and thus, will never be Polish enough.

    I wonder if it's true, as my father said, that this is the same exact attitude that contributed to the Partitions a few centuries ago and removed us from the map.

    In the end, it's as you say, Divided We Fail.

    I have been meaning (but with two young children, I hope you will forgive my lateness) to visit your blog lately and also to invite you to join the Polish Culture Forum as the creator, Jaga and I have discussed many of your articles and would love you to join in discussion there. http://jagahost.proboards.com/index.cgi

    Pozdrawiam and keep up the great work you do!

    ReplyDelete

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