I watched one movie while I was sick. The Shop on Main Street was a black and white Czechoslovakian movie from 1965. The Netflix disc had been sitting on top of my tv for literally months. But the film will stay with me even longer than the disk did.
Because of the Shop on Main Street, I was thinking about the nature of hate and the way average people become complicit in genocide even before the gross miscarriage of justice in Missouri this week. It’s a question I’ve wondered about before.
Once my mother confronted my grandmother on behalf of her generation. She asked, “What were you doing when Germany committed genocide?” My grandmother’s answer was that she was raising small children with an alcoholic husband. She and others like her were aware that something bad was happening in Europe, but they were busy leading lives that were already hard enough, and they were fuzzy on the details.
Later, my mother realized that conversation took place during the years the Khmer Rouge was in power in Cambodia. And when she told me about it, what genocide I ignoring? Take your pick: the Kurds in Iraq, Muslims in Bosnia, Tutsi in Rwanda – did I miss any?
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It’s easy to understand how people can ignore atrocities in distant lands. But the Shop on Main Street was about standing by while your neighbors lose their freedom, are systematically robbed, and eventually rounded up and killed. How could someone watch quietly when the man who cut his hair since childhood is evicted from his own shop? How could someone ignore a policeman shooting a child? How could someone ignore their policemen shooting citizens with same frequency as Jim Crow-era lynchings?
The answer, according to this film, is fear, and that answer makes sense to me. Hate is simply the mask of courage worn by fear. In the Shop on Main Street, one man was brave enough to defend the Jews, and the Hlinka guards hunted him down. He was beaten and dragged into the town square, where everyone gathered to see. It’s one of the best moments I’ve ever seen in film. No one says anything, but it is obvious that the townspeople sympathize with this man. Everyone is afraid of ending up like him, but if any one of them had the courage to speak up, the entire crowd would have joined them, and the town might have been rid of the Hlinka guards right there.
People are busy living their own hard lives. But mostly they are afraid. Like the complicit carpenter Tono in Main Street, they are afraid of standing out; they are afraid of losing out; they are afraid that someone will take their stuff, or that others are getting rich while they tread water. They are afraid of losing their place of privilege and having to deal with the same struggles as the oppressed.
Tono knows there is nothing to fear from the town’s Jews. He knows that he has no right to take over the shop on main street that has belonged to the Jewish widow for as long as he can remember. But he is afraid of his wife’s nagging, of staying poor while his pro-Nazi brother-in-law gets rich. After his best friend is taken and he realizes how serious the situation is, he is too afraid to take action to protect the old woman he has come to care about.
My daughter is ten. When I look at the little boys of color in her class, I see little boys that she has played with since kindergarten. I see cute little kids who play Lego and Star Wars, little kids with poor impulse control, children who dote on baby sisters, who memorize sports statistics, who won’t eat their broccoli. But they are approaching that magical age when girls become sex objects and boys become threats.
Last Saturday a 12-year-old boy with a toy gun was shot to death by police in a playground in Cincinnati. Only two years older than these little boys in my daughter’s class, an armed, trained adult saw this child as a mortal threat.
Right now, everyone is thinking about America’s fear of black males. But the last three times I was in Europe, I listened to French people cursing the Muslim immigrants for their use of social services, responsibility for crime rates, and failure to fully assimilate. I could not distinguish these conversations from the ones I hear at home about immigrants crossing the border from Mexico. They sound a lot like the monologues about Jews from Tono’s wife in the Shop on Main Street. They sound like fear.
I even understand the fear. We are trained to fear. When they are not boys I’ve known since kindergarten, I do not walk past a group of teenage boys on the street as casually as I walk past a group of adults. I am more on guard walking past a group of African-American boys than white ones. I don’t want to be that way. But the fear is there.
I understand that a more equal world may mean I can’t afford to go to Europe and listen to the French whine, or may not be able to drive everywhere when I’m home. But what if justice means no dishwasher? Can I give up that luxury to eliminate slave labor in the third world? When we don’t even know what equity looks like, it’s hard for the privileged not to fear what we might lose to reach it (especially when we have been indulging the privilege of not realizing the ways we are advantaged).
But what scares me more than a life without kitchen appliances is what our collective fear can do to the little boys at my daughter’s school. What scares me more than losing my place of privilege in the world is the inevitable moment when the fear of black thugs shifts to fear of the yellow menace and my own daughter becomes the target. What scares me most of all is what fear can do to the fearful. Because if we don’t face the fear and speak up against it, the cost is nothing less than our souls.