Mel Gibson, Evil, and Art

Mel Gibson’s little contretemps with the police has become a lot more interesting than it started out to be. It raises issues about how we should count traits, prejudice, and considered discourse in making moral judgments about people and, as Gibson is an artist (and not just an actor who speaks the lines of others), how the personality of the artist should count in engaging his work.

In case you’re just back from a retreat with the Trappists, the facts are that Gibson (i) produced, directed and wrote The Passion of the Christ, a movie some think blames the Jews for Christ’s crucifixion, reigniting an ancient motivator of anti-Semitism, (ii) reportedly puts filial piety above rejecting his father’s holocaust-denier views, or maybe he agrees with Dad, (iii) hit the road in Malibu after a party with a BAC of 0.12, which is 50% over California DWI limit, but not falling-down drunk (about 6 drinks in 2 hr. for a 180 lb. man), (iv) is widely reported without denial to be alcoholic, (v) greeted the policeman who stopped him and wrote him up with an anti-Semitic tirade (of the “Jews run everything from behind the scenes” variety, type III.b.4). There’s some noise that the cops left the last part out of the report to keep it from public view.

When his head cleared, he (and his handlers) went into contrite mode in two phases; the first omitting the part about the Jews and just apologizing for DWI, being rude, and for his hostility, the second, a day later, rending garments in apology to the Jews and saying very harsh things about anti-Semitism. These spectacles have been truly spell-binding; who knew that when Braveheart took off the blue paint we would get Uriah Heep?

Since he’s such a public figure, it isn’t piling on to use his case to consider what one should make of this sort of thing. The easy one first: anyone who gets in a car on the public ways in Gibson’s condition is reckless with the lives of anyone who might be on the road; the behavior is all the more reprehensible in one who can afford to be driven anywhere he wants, any time, in the vehicle of his choice.

CORRECTION: The original version of this post reported a BAC of .28 and was proportionately tougher on Gibson; my mistake. Sorry.

Now, the interesting part: First, do we assume alcohol lowers inhibitions and that people will say (slurred and blurred though the rhetoric be) what they “really think” when drunk? Or is a drunk just talking nonsense? If the former, Gibson has revealed himself to be an anti-Semite. But these views can result from an unexamined, deeply rooted personality trait like being a good speller or a nasty SOB, or they can derive from sober analysis of data and thoughtful reflection (however defective the rational process) – or both, the former biasing and steering the latter.

Gibson’s life in Hollywood has surely rubbed him up against lots of Jews from which experience a reasonable person would infer that they are about as good and as bad as everyone else, so my bet is on the deep personality defect; this is not a guy from a village in Saudi Arabia who’s never met a Jew and heard nothing but calumny about them.

Anyway, which is more reprehensible? In principle, there’s nothing to be done for the first case, any more than reasoning with a deaf person (or imploring) will restore his hearing, but it’s easier instinctively to despise someone whose bigotry is a trait than someone who got there by sloppy thinking or bad education. My guess is that instinct is wrong here: to hate the sin and love the sinner is a practiced skill, not an easy one to acquire, but well worth having. The distinction is something like the difference between being an alcoholic and driving while drunk.

What about the bigot who doesn’t bother to edit his speech compared to the one who understands that social convention and the good regard of society and his friends requires that he dissemble? Jewish doctrine holds it more virtuous to obey a commandment against one’s desires than because one wants to anyway; there’s no merit in liking the taste of matzo so much that one delights in eating it all the time during Passover. On this principle, the bigot who conceals his prejudice is more to be admired than the one who lets it all hang out…or is there some intrinsic merit in being completely honest about everything you feel?

Let’s assume Gibson to have been nailed as an anti-Semite in his heart, but who somehow knew it wasn’t anything to boast about or display until alcohol and anger loosened his tongue. How are we supposed to take his artistic product? Western aesthetic theory tends to seek the personality of the artist in the work, a question hard to ignore regarding Gibson’s passion movie, maybe important even when he’s acting. Fortunately, no-one thinks Mel Gibson has given us an body of deathless art central to our civilization, but the general question arises where it really matters. It’s not hard to find explicit anti-Semitic symbolism and German xenophobia here and there in Wagner’s operas (not to mention his essays); are we to assume his prejudices must pervade everything he wrote even if one can’t demonstrate exactly how a diminished ninth chord in such and such a progression poisons the listener’s mind? Is it OK to hear Tristan and Isolde carried away by their mutual attraction on its own terms, or must one play a mental obbligato through even this most personal, apolitical, scene saying “remember, the guy who wrote this was a poster boy for Hitler (not to mention a misogynist who treated women very badly).” What about recordings from the 30s, conducted by Mengelberg, Krauss, and von Karajan; the notes are the ones Beethoven wrote, but conductors are important and these guys were in bed with, or playing footsie with, real, consequential, over-the-top evil. Does that not matter, not matter much, not matter any more…? Read properly, The Merchant of Venice doesn’t actually blight Shakespeare, but should The Jew of Malta put Marlowe off the shelf?

My inclination is to be extremely tolerant of the personality defects of artists and even the evil in this and that of their works, and to have modest expectations of anyone’s ability to swim against a surrounding cultural and political current (and great admiration for those who do, when the current is going the wrong way). The same goes for scientists; I think I havea duty to understand, and to believe, what Shockley discovered about semiconductors, and Chomsky about language, despite their political forays into what I see as looneyland.

At the same time, there’s no reason to cut these people slack for their specific offenses just because of their talent. On the example of, and teaching by, my mother the sculptor, I am impatient with treating artists or any geniuses like children. But the offenses have to be acts (including artistic acts); traits may have consequences in practice, and then they matter, but personal bad behavior (mistreating family and friends), and just being a bigot in one’s heart (or a communist, or even a Nazi, I guess) are between the sinner and his circle, or his Maker, and on the whole, none of our business.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

21 thoughts on “Mel Gibson, Evil, and Art”

  1. I tend to agree, even though it makes me uncomfortable.
    Art _should_ be taken on merit, not on personality, in my view; as far as it goes, that that's impossible is part of a critic's job – exceptions are always made (compare the Blue Period with the bicycle construct, and tell me the latter would be as famous if not for the former).
    That said, when a work seems to align with opinions the author has expressed in completely different contexts (unless getting busted was performance art), one can approach starting to look at the piece while taking the author's views in to account.
    For instance, I think this is much more on the "obvious" side than, say, Hesse.

  2. If you get too worked up about the artist, you lose out on all the brilliant works made over the centuries by assholes. Take James Brown, the human being — please. But leave us his music.

  3. If you have some repugnant personal views and you're also an artist or writer, it helps to sublimate the repugnant views, to play away from them.
    As an example, I think George Orwell was a great essayist. If you look at his diaries, you'll also see that he partook of the standard English anti-Semitism of his time. He has an entry about how Jews took up too much space on Underground platforms in London during the Blitz, when people were sleeping down there.
    But in his published work, he steered clear of this sort of stuff, which is very important to do.
    Mel Gibson chose to make The Passion and hopes to do a miniseries about the Holocaust. Yikes. He should be running in the opposite direction.

  4. Interesting, but…you don't seem to focus on the commercial aspect of MG's career. If we are to treat him as an artist, we also have to acknowledge that he is a businessman and that his art is only made possible by his activity as a businessman. Thus, under your analysis, I must judge the art that MG makes on its own terms, but must the folks who underwrite his movies? Can't the Hollywood types decide, "art, schmart… he's bad for business?"

  5. Where is Regrave's "obvious anti-semitism"? I must have missed it.
    I looked up her Oscar acceptance speech, and here's what I found (it could be an inaccurate transcript):
    "I think Jane Fonda and I have done the best work of our lives, and I think this was in part due to our director, Fred Zinnemann. I also think it is in part because we believed in what we were expressing: two out of millions who gave their lives and were prepared to sacrifice everything in the fight against fascist racist Nazi Germany."
    "You should be very proud that in the last few weeks you stood firm and you refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record against fascism and oppression. I salute that record and I salute all of you for having stood firm and dealt the final blow against that period when Nixon and McCarthy launched a worldwide witch hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truths that they believed in." And with resolute she concluded: "I salute you and I thank you, and I pledge to you that I'll continue to fight against antiSemitism and fascism."
    Sounds like she specifically and directly repudiates anti semitism.
    So how is she "obviously" an anti-semite???

  6. Why is Mel's case different?
    Maybe it's because he's a no-talent hack and his "art" is utter crap?


  8. Locutor writes:
    "So how is [Vanessa Redgrave] 'obviously' an anti-semite???"
    To expand the question a bit, how do "Mengelberg, Krauss, and von Karajan" qualify for approbrium as "playing footsie" with Nazis when their choice was either to flee their country or stay? Either way they would likely have pursued their art. But because they stayed, they "played footsie"?
    And what of a genuine certified USDA inspected prime anti-semite who actively left his country and sought out a country from which to propagate his own anti-semitic views? Ezra Pound made anti-semitic propaganda broadcasts from Italy throughout WWII. Yet he still ranks among the greatest poets of the 20th century.
    This, even though after WWII he became focus of an artistic following specifically attracted by his anti-semitic views. I once heard Hugh Kenner observe that many of Pound's visitors at St. Elizabeth's were not so interested in poetics as "waiting for marching orders".

  9. Who cares? I forget, but is MG a leader of a country? A senator? A representative? Why is his opinion held in such regard? Call me crazy, but I think that there are more important things to discuss than some ranting drunk actor and the slurry of insults he slung, like I don't know maybe the war in Iraq, Israel, Hezbollah, Lebanon, global warming, children w/o health insurance, homelessness, the current administration, social programs, New Orleans reconstruction….Do I need to go on. Stop giving him more time than he deserves.

  10. CM: MG isn't just some idiot yapping mostly to himself at a bar somewhere. So far this incident has already done some good in that a holocaust denier has apparently lost the opportunity to make a big-budget movie about the holocaust. That's a win for the Forces Of Good by any standard. One can only speculate about how much respectability he'd have been able to give the deniers, but it's a lot less now.
    He'll have a much harder time inciting pogroms when everyone can see the swastika on him arm. I shine a light on it every chance I get. In my circle, his anti-semitism came up once before, when I read about his holocaust denial on Dave Neiwert. Few of them were convinced by that, but with that as context, this closed the deal. Now they all see it nice and clear.

  11. CM: feel free to write your own essays on those topics if you feel they're more important. It's a free country (mostly).

  12. .28? Do you have a link on that? Every news account I have seen lists the BAC as .12 percent, which is too drunk do drive, but isn't, in my uneducated estimate, "falling down drunk." Obviously, that does make a difference. If he was .28, I could imagine that he was simply spouting nonsense. At .12, it seems more likely that he simply had lowered inhibitions.

  13. Thanks, John M. I misread or misremembered the BAC number. I corrected the post.

  14. 0.12 BAC is what I've seen too (the limit being 0.08, so it isn't that much over). On the other hand, the *behavior* seems pretty extreme for that level of intoxication; among other things, he tried to get back in his car and leave the scene after he was stopped and had to be restrained, cuffed, and thrown in the patrol car.
    My own theory: He's been trying to overcome the influence his anti-Semitic father had on him in his own life, but has never been able to bring himself to openly oppose his father's views–presumably just one symptom of a deeply conflicted relationship. This drunken episode was his psyche's way of bringing his problems with his father irrevocably out in the open where he wouldn't be able to avoid dealing with them head-on.
    I also suspect his "Passion of the Christ" had a similar subconscious motivation, to force himself to deal with the conflict, but he was able to fudge it, so the strategem didn't work.

  15. Is it typical for charges lodged in DUI arrests to not include the fact that the driver was also speeding? I believe it was something like 85 in a 45 zone if memory serves, which should also qualify as reckless, I would think. And, would other DUI drivers be given a pass on the resisting arrest part of it?
    I find it very troublesome when "special" people are let off on lesser charges than regular citizens would be given, and the MG case would seem to illustrate this practice. I think this is of far greater import than his drunken rantings.
    I don't really care if he's an anti-Semite since I already thought he was a jerk anyway. "Art"??? More like porn, at least in the case of "Passion of the Christ" – who but a jerk would focus so fanatically on someone's untimely death at the hands of other jerks, but ignore the PASSION of Christ's words and life? And really: why would anyone want to view several hours of bloody beatings/torture, regardless of the presumed plot? Something I will never understand.

  16. When Marlon Brando made anti-semetic comments late in his career, it didn't elicit the same threats of boycotts that Gibson is getting. Michael Moore has said some very unflattering things about Israel, yet Moore has escaped ostracism by the Hollywood establishment. Why the double standard? Is it that Brando and Moore are ultra-liberals, while Gibson is conservative?

  17. fightforjustice:
    Most people can distinguish between "unflattering things about Israel" and anti-Semitic comments. It's not so much a double standard as sufficient perspective to see the difference.

  18. So. Mel Gibson makes some statements which show that it's fairly likely he supports an ideology which has genocidal implications. A major movie funder pulls funding for one of his projects, and there are calls for the industry to deny him further work, something which may be likely to occur, at least to some extent.
    How is that unlike the Hollywood Blacklist?

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