I have two reactions to the latest Mel-gate. The first is that I couldn’t give a hoot about Mr. Gibson, a mega-celebrity who has clearly lost control of his life. The second is: There but for the grace of God go we.
I don’t mean that we all harbor barely suppressed racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and misogyny. I’m not saying that we are all one step away from exploding into an obscene, drunken tantrum. I mean that we are all—those of us who are not saints, anyway—fallible beings capable of irrational behavior, ugly sentiments and rhetorical rage.
I agree with the notion that the ugly private acts of public figures such as Gibson are fair game. If the public giveth fame and unimaginable wealth, and it is accepted, then the public should have the right to take it away in the light of an extraordinary meltdown of character. But like our legal system, our structure of customs and conventions also proceeds by precedent. There is general exultation that Gibson’s former lover, Oksana Grigorieva, taped her telephone conversation with him, thus catching him in the act of viciously attacking her and hurling racial and ethnic slurs. But there is no awareness that the same tactics could one day soon be used against all sorts of public figures, virtuous or not, and even against people who have no public presence whatsoever.
And when you or I are caught with our pants down or our tongues embarrassingly flapping, our expectation that people will see the complicated shadings of our misconduct might be disappointed. The most sophisticated people have turned a blind eye to the possibility that Grigorieva might well be the ruthless gold digger Gibson has accused her of being. Can’t he be the indecent man he has proven himself to be, and also be right about his perception of his former paramour? Just as you can applaud the downfall of the equally tongue-tripping Stanley McChrystal, despise him as a homicidal frat boy, yet believe him when he says that he found President Obama “unprepared” and understand, if not pardon, the source of his disdain for a president so easily intimidated by a general?
As for Gibson, that snarling voice on the tapes is the voice of a man who has been delivered a blow to, as D.H. Lawrence once put it, his “sexual root.” After all, Gibson doesn’t have the typical profile of a Hollywood celeb. He was married for 30 years to a woman with whom he had seven children. Apparently, he likes children so much that he and his now ex-wife have donated millions of dollars to organizations devoted to helping sick ones. After 30 years, something in him snaps and he runs off with a woman who allows him to donate millions of dollars to her mediocre career as a performer. Filled with self-loathing at being made a fool, he turns his self-hatred against her. His childish, inadequate view of the world breaks under the strain of his contradictions and he erupts. The kikes and the niggers and the fags and the wetbacks are the patchwork monster of his very own self, formerly hidden by a puerile Catholicism, and by an adolescent notion of himself as a hero—Braveheart—and by his own occasional charitableness. Maybe he is so fond of children because, like so many Hollywood actors who grew rich and famous before they could grow a character, he never had a reckoning with his responsibilities to people outside his familiar world.
You can buy my psychologizing or not, but I think that if we don’t practice understanding in the public realm, we will start to lose it in the private realm. Alas, there are plenty of people willing to hasten the prosecutorial atmosphere to advance their own interests. Consider The New York Times’ David Brooks and Frank Rich. Like some old vaudeville duo, both of them instantly seized on Gibson’s latest meltdown to preen themselves on their own moral virtue, and to draw the most foolish conclusions from it about American life.
According to Brooks, Gibson’s private rant means that “we’ve entered an era where self-branding is on the ascent and the culture of self-effacement is on the decline.” Never mind that with his global celebrity and his hundreds of millions of dollars, Gibson is as much unlike “us” as Brooks is unlike Homer, to whom he repeatedly and inaccurately refers in his columns. And never mind that three weeks ago, Brooks himself deplored the culture of exposure, using the McChrystal meltdown to mount his social-science pulpit and lament that “the exposure ethos, with its relentless emphasis on destroying privacy and exposing impurities.”
And here is the ever-sanctimonious Rich reaching his big-picture conclusion: “The death throes of Mel Gibson’s career feel less like another Hollywood scandal than the last gasps of an American era.” Never mind that Gibson, who abruptly shifted from action hero to playing Hamlet, does not stand for an era. And never mind that the era Rich is referring to—the era of the culture wars—is one that he keeps pronouncing dead in column after column, for the simple reason that all he knows how to write about is the culture wars. Rich goes on to call Gibson a “bigoted blowhard.” Well, that’s obvious. Gibson also opposed the Iraq war and spoke of President Bush’s “fearmongering.”
I still think he’s a creep. I can’t forgive him for using the N-word, even though the Lethal Weapon movies that he made with Danny Glover probably did as much as Oprah to break down taboos between whites and blacks. Yet in their affectation of starry-eyed naïveté about human nature, Brooks and Rich seem to be enacting their own Braveheart fantasy. Rich even boasts that Gibson once threatened to kill him. Ecce homo!
With his racial, religious and sexual slurs, Gibson has disgraced himself with an un-American outburst. Our fair land of teeming differences is too much for him. He has forfeited his right to loom on our mythical and mythologizing silver screen: He will disappear into ignominious oblivion, and he should.
Still, I wonder if in this little story we are now telling ourselves about the absolute badness of Gibson and the absolute goodness of those who condemn him, we are not acting a lot like the puerile Patriot himself.