IN THE commercial, he stands before the store window, his eye on the Pentax camera, waiting for the price to drop. He waits and he waits. He waits through the winter and the snow and he waits through the summer and the heat and he waits through the rains, too. He waits with his nose pressed against the glass and a wonderful nose it is. It would be a typical Jewish nose only there is no such thing. Pentax would deny it and the ad agency would deny it and I, probably, would deny it. We all would be lying.
This is a guess. I really don't know what the ad agency would say since they would not even supply the script for the commercial when asked.An inquiry sent them into a mild panic. As for Pentax, they undoubtedly would deny that they meant any ethnic inference and as for me, I would be expected to deny that there is such a thing as looking Jewish. As we all know, there is.
This comes up now because it is an example of what you might call the new openness - recognizing the differences among people. For too long we have been told that what we saw we did not see - told, in essence, that everyone was more or less the same. The result was a constant denial of experience, of what we know, with the result that we tended to deny everything. Once someone argues that there is no such thing as looking Jewish, for instance, you can dismiss the rest of what he says. It sounds nice, but you know better.
The fact of the matter is that there is such a thing as looking Jewish. Just what this is, I'm not sure, but it is something I can recognize. It has something to do with noses, maybe something else, but whatever it is, it is something you can see. But if you see it and you mention it and you are not Jewish, you run the risk of being called an anti-Semite. If you mention it and you are Jewish, all you get are nods of recognition from the Jews who have heard you.
Another example of this sort of thing is the so-called canard about blacks being better dancers than whites. If a white person says it, he's got trouble on his hands and indeed on television it's the standard line that gives away the white racist. Yet blacks believe that by and large they are better dancers than whites and by and large they are. They also play basketball better and to say that is merely to state the obvious, although the differences here may have more to do with inner-city environments than anything else.
Anyway, the point is that to recognize differences is not necessarily a sign of prejudice, expecially when the differences may be obvious. You see this all the time, especially when someone is asked to describe someone else and the last thing they mention is the most obvious: race. Sometimes, too, people bend over so far to seem unprejudiced that they act silly. I, for one, once did not call the cops to investigate two suspicious-looking men simply because they were both black and I didn't want anyone, including myself, to think I was prejudiced. The fact that they were sitting in a double-parked car at 2 in the morning with the motor running was, to me, beside the point. A moment later they robbed a man and fired a shot at him.
This sort of thing happens all the time. It happens when politicians talk of different ethnic groups as if there were no differences among them, as if, say, the only difference between rich and poor was matter of money and not also life-styles. You see it when someone refers to a woman as a person when he means a woman or when everyone blathers helplessly when some guy changes his name to something Spanish-sounding and proclaims himself a minority group member. It's as if no one had the nerve to say, funny, you don't look Spanish, not to mention how he doesn't sound Spanish.
So probably it's a good thing that we're getting away from that. Probably it's a good thing that television is full of situation comedies about ethnic groups. There is a lesson here and it is that not all differences are important. They are like the differences between men and women-obvious to the eye but of no importance whatsoever when it comes to, say, being a doctor.
But having said that, you also have to say that there is something here that is troubling. It is one thing to confront the truth in a frank way an quite another thing to go from truth to untruth as if they were both the same. Take the Pentax commerical we started with. You applaud it in a way for acknowledging that there is such a thing as looking Jewish. But the man looking into the store window is more than just Jewish-looking. He's waiting for the price to drop. He's acting frugal and cheap. From looks we have gone to behavior, from something we can see to something we can't see - from truth to a lie.
That's the trouble with the new openness. It sometimes looks like the old prejudice.