July 16, 2010
The Good News About Mel Gibson
By FRANK RICH
The Gibson tapes — in plain English and not requiring the subtitles of some of the star’s recent spectacles — are a particularly American form of schadenfreude. There’s little we enjoy more than watching a pampered zillionaire icon (Gibson’s production company is actually named Icon) brought low. The story would end there — just another tidy morality tale in the profuse annals of
Six years ago he was not merely an A-list movie star with a penchant for drinking and boorish behavior but also a powerful and canonized figure in the political and cultural pantheon of American conservatism. That he has reached rock bottom tells us nothing new about Gibson. He was the same talented, nasty, bigoted blowhard then that he is today. But his fall says a lot about the changes in our country over the past six years. We shouldn’t take those changes for granted. We should take stock — and celebrate. They are good news.
Does anyone remember 2004? It seems a civilization ago. That less-than-vintage year was in retrospect the nadir of the American war over “values.” The kickoff fracas was Janet Jackson’s breast-baring “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, which prompted a new crackdown against televised “indecency” by the Federal Communications Commission. By December Fox News and its allies were fomenting hysteria about a supposed war on Christmas, with Newt Gingrich warning of a nefarious secular plot “to abolish the word Christmas” altogether and Jerry Falwell attacking Mayor Michael Bloomberg for using the euphemism “holiday tree” at the annual tree-lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Center. In between these discrete culture wars came a presidential election in which the Bush-Rove machine tried to whip up evangelical turnout by sowing panic over gay marriage.
It was into that tinderbox of America 2004 that Gibson tossed his self-financed and self-directed movie about the crucifixion, “The Passion of the Christ.” The epic was timed to detonate in the nation’s multiplexes on Ash Wednesday, after one of the longest and most divisive promotional campaigns in
Gibson is in such disgrace today that it’s hard to fathom all the fuss he and his biblical epic engendered back then. The commotion began with the revelation that his father, Hutton, was a prominent and vociferous Holocaust denier and that both father and son were proselytizers for a splinter sect of Roman Catholicism that rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including the lifting of the “Christ-killers” libel from the Jews. Jewish leaders and writers understandably worried that “The Passion” might be as anti-Semitic as the Passion plays of old. Gibson’s response was to hold publicity screenings for the right-wing media and political establishment, including a select
Uninvited Jewish writers (like me) who kept raising questions about the unreleased film and its exclusionary rollout were vilified for crucifying poor Mel. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News asked a reporter from Variety “respectfully” if Gibson was being victimized because “the major media in
Both George and Laura Bush expressed eagerness to see “The Passion.” There were reports (spread by the film’s producer and never confirmed) that the very frail Pope John Paul II had given a thumbs-up after his own screening at the
Once “The Passion” could be seen by ticket buyers — who would reward it with a $370 million domestic take (behind only “Shrek 2” and “Spider-Man 2” that year) — the truth could no longer be spun by Gibson’s claque. The movie was nakedly anti-Semitic, to the extreme that the
It seems preposterous in retrospect that a film as bigoted and noxious as “The Passion” had so many reverent defenders in high places in 2004. Once Gibson, or at least the subconscious Gibson, baldly advertised his anti-Semitism with his obscene tirade during a 2006 D.U.I. incident in Malibu, his old defenders had no choice but to peel off. Today you never hear conservatives mention their embrace of “The Passion” back then — if they mention Gibson at all. (Fox News has barely covered the new tapes.) But it isn’t just Gibson who has been discredited. Even as he self-immolated, so did many of the moral paragons who had rallied around him as a culture-war martyr.
Take, for instance, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. During the “Passion” wars, he had tried to blackmail Gibson’s critics by publicly noting that Christians are “a major source of support for
The cultural wave that crested with “The Passion” was far bigger than Gibson. He was simply a symptom and beneficiary of a moment when the old religious right and its political and media shills were riding high. In 2010, the American ayatollahs’ ranks have been depleted by death (Falwell), retirement (James Dobson) and rent boys (too many to name). What remains of that old guard is stigmatized by its identification with poisonous crusades, from the potentially lethal antihomosexuality laws in Uganda to the rehabilitation campaign for the “born-again” serial killer David Berkowitz (“Son of Sam”) in America.
Conservative America’s new signature movement, the Tea Party, has its own extremes, but it shuns culture-war battles. It even remained mum when a federal judge in
As utter coincidence would have it, the revelation of the latest Gibson tapes was followed last week by the news that a federal appeals court, in a 3-0 ruling, had thrown out the indecency rules imposed by the F.C.C. after Janet Jackson’s 2004 “wardrobe malfunction.” The death throes of Mel Gibson’s career feel less like another
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs