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Scott Larson

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The road warrior

So, what are we to make finally of l’affaire Gibson?

I think the consensus reached over the weekend by my friends on Fox News Watch was probably the right one. They concluded that, after all the obituaries of Mel’s career have been done and dusted and enough time has passed by, he will be rehabilitated after giving an emotionally confessional interview to either Oprah or Jay Leno. (I’m guessing Leno.)

It is worth noting what was so terrible about what the inebriated Gibson said to the L.A. sheriff’s deputy. He said, “The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” What is interesting is that I have frequently heard or read nearly the exact same sentence numerous times in respected newspapers, magazines and television programs, but with the word “Americans” or “British” substituted for “Jews.” What’s the difference? (Wags are now retorting, “Because it’s true!”) For one thing, unlike “Americans” or “British,” the word “Jews,” depending on the speaker, can refer alternatively or simultaneously to 1) adherents of a religion, 2) members of a tribe (some would say “race”), and 3) citizens of the state of Israel. The term doesn’t merely refer to a country or current or past governments. It refers to actual human beings. But the primary reason that Gibson’s remarks give offense, even to those who are not Jewish, is the collective guilt felt by much of the world over the death of 6.5 million people at the hands of the Nazis. That history raises what might otherwise be mere slander to the level of uncivilized indecency.

As is always the case with these celebrity imbroglios, there are two fascinating things to watch: 1) the unexpected and unwelcome insight into the celebrity himself and 2) everybody else’s reaction to it. For once, I find myself mostly agreeing with conservative talk show host Michael Medved. Writing in USA Today, Medved made these points: 1) Gibson’s drunken comments were inexcusable, 2) but they still “a far less serious threat” than anti-Israel comments made by celebrities and politicians around the world, 3) The Passion of the Christ is still the same movie it was before Gibson made his hateful comments, and 4) shunning Gibson serves no purpose, especially since he has apologized. While Medved’s comments stand on their own, they also resonant because of the fact that Medved happens to be Jewish.

As far as I know, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson is not Jewish, and he is having none of the forgiveness thing. He acknowledges Gibson’s apology, but intones, “Let’s not cut Mel Gibson even the tiniest bit of slack.” Robinson wrote that the drunken Mel was clearly the “real” Mel, so apologies aren’t really relevant. He concludes by saying that the Gibson episode is a reminder of why Israel was created in the first place. He is right, of course, but isn’t the reason that Israel has been regularly fighting wars with its neighbors for its entire existence because a lot of people in that part of the world have trouble forgiving?

Picking up on Medved’s second point, syndicated columnist Richard Cohen also saw a symbiosis between the Gibson incident and the world’s current view of Israel. “The world is having a Mel Gibson moment,” he wrote. “If it does not quite hold Jews ‘responsible for all the wars in the world,’ then certainly it is ready to blame Israel alone for the carnage in Lebanon and, in the addled formulations of some, the war in Iraq as well.” He then went on to more or less say that U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was to Israel what Mel Gibson was to Jews generally.

I think we can see what is going on here. While many people were honestly and rightly shocked and disgusted by what Gibson said, most professional opinionators are going about their usual business of making the incident fit into the political or social points that they wanted to make anyway. Medved, who admires Gibson’s conservative religious beliefs, was ready to cut him slack. Robinson, who is big on anti-racism, wasn’t. And Cohen, who is a staunch defender of Israel, saw the episode as a chance to make it fit his point as well.

But Medved also touched a point that struck home with me. Gibson’s comments made those of us, who not only defended but praised The Passion of the Christ on artistic merits, feel like dupes. Some had said that the movie reeked of anti-Semitism. I and others didn’t see it. Now, it seems as those the others were right. Or were they? As Medved says, the movie hasn’t changed. It’s still the same as when I saw it two years ago and didn’t see an overt anti-Semitic message. It’s still the movie that prompted me to write that, “to my mind, a movie that depicts a man going through the unspeakable torture that Jesus does and then asks God to forgive his torturers and everyone else is pretty powerful stuff.”

If the movie has changed for me, it is now that I see it more in the context of the personal struggle that Mel Gibson is obviously going through. Say what you want about him, his father is definitely the really sad case. I am long past justifying or excusing or even explaining people by what example their parents set for them or how they were raised. But Mel Gibson clearly had a lot of baggage handed to him from his father. I know that there have been times in my wayward past, after more than a few drinks, I have begun channeling my father. I’m just fortunate that my father was a very decent man. After coming to realize just how powerful are the demons that Gibson has had to deal with, I now tend to see his Passion movie as some sort of metaphor for Gibson’s own struggle. To put it in the most irreligious terms, The Passion is about a man who has a huge amount of crap handed to him and still struggles to rise above it and forgive. Maybe I’m indulging in too much pop psychology here, but I would like to think that, at some level, Gibson saw the story mirroring his own reality.

Of course, I don’t and can’t actually know that. But I am pretty sure of one thing. Anyone who can make a movie as emotionally powerful as The Passion of the Christ—including the memorable scene of Mary watching Jesus stumble and evoking, in a flashback, the love and protectiveness a mother feels for her child—and who ends the film on a note of incredible forgiveness, is not a completely lost cause as a human being.

Never mind Hollywood and movie audiences forgiving Mel Gibson. His career is a small hill of beans in this crazy world. Where some sense of forgiveness is really needed is mong the world’s various tribes, especially the ones who are so consumed with hatred that they prize the deaths of their enemies more than they do the lives of their own children.

-S.L., 10 August 2006

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