Tuesday, August 01, 2006

A time to reflect

What's especially striking to me about the breaking news of Mel Gibson's recent anti-Semitic outburst while drunk is how rare this kind of situation is. Many celebrities and public figures have been accused of anti-Semitism, sometimes fairly, sometimes not, but in very few cases is there explicit proof. Even Vanessa Redgrave tried make it sound like she opposed only Zionists, not Jews, in her notorious Oscar acceptance speech, and Marlon Brando framed his attack on Jews as a criticism of Hollywood's alleged insensitivity toward "other" groups. In the last few years people have argued passionately over whether Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite, closet or otherwise. Until now, the proof was far more ambiguous than it was for Redgrave or Brando, and even some prominent Jews like Michael Medved rushed to his defense.

Now, what do his former defenders have to say? It looks like they really have egg on their faces. But the gist I've gotten from them is, okay, so it's true, Mel is an anti-Semite, but that doesn't mean we were wrong to defend him before. As Michael Medved argues in his blog, "Gibson's comments...remain particularly perplexing in the light of a previous record free of personal, anti-Semitic incident." I find this reaction naive. Gibson's former defenders should be considering that maybe they weren't quite as sensitive as they could have been to the presence of closet anti-Semitism in a man whose career could have been damaged by this information. Bigotry is a complex phenomenon, and it still amazes me how many people are blind to how subtle it can be.

Medved considers it perverse that the press focused on Hutton Gibson, Mel's father, who is an out-and-out Holocaust denier, instead of on Mel himself, who supposedly renounced the views of his father. But a closer look reveals that not to be the case. Mel was quite vague about the details regarding his own belief in the Holocaust ("chillingly ambiguous," as Charles Krauthammer put it). These are his words: "Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union." Anyone who's familiar with the rhetoric of Holocaust deniers and Holocaust minimizers will recognize the similarities here. They all admit that some Jews were murdered. What they dispute is the numbers, and they deny there was any systematic attempt at genocide. Nothing that Mel said here contradicts that outlook.

I have not, by the way, seen The Passion. Still, even without getting into the debate over that particular film, there was plenty of evidence to support the claim that Gibson was an anti-Semite, long before this drunk-driving incident. I was once willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, on the grounds that maybe he was trying hard not to insult his father. That isn't an excuse, but it did leave open the possibility that he wasn't anti-Semitic in his heart. Now, we've gotten a rare glimpse into his heart, so maybe we need to look into our own.

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