August 02, 2006

Escaping your past

I've followed the buzz about Mel Gibson's DUI and subsequent anti-Semitic rants. The only thing that could even remotely be considered a positive is Gibson's apology, which included this line:

I acted like a person completely out of control when I was arrested and said things that I do not believe to be true and which are despicable.

Many people aren't in the forgiving mood, figuring that whatever Mel said when drunk reflects his actual feelings. I have to say that I agree with that sentiment. However, I believe that it's more complicated than that, as I'll attempt to illustrate using some examples that hit close to home for me.

My grandmother was born in 1904. She lived through the Depression, Two World Wars, a multitude of presidents and one presidential assassination. She outlived her husband by 25 years. During that time, she suffered through two mastectomies and two rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Through the whole ordeal, she didn't complain once. In fact, she worked up until about a year before her death, at which time the cancer and its treatments made such a thing impossible. She helped raise me and my sister, as my mother usually worked two or more jobs to keep a roof over our heads. She was one of the strongest, best people that I've known in my entire life. She was also an inveterate racist.

I know what you're thinking: how in the world does this relate to the Mel Gibson meltdown? Allow me to explain.

My grandmother's prejudice against blacks was deep, firmyl embedded in her psyche. I'm certain that she didn't see it that way, of course. To her mind, that's just the way things were. Let me offer an example:

As I mentioned, my mother worked a lot to keep a roof over our heads. There were times when her job would keep her late, preventing my mother from being able to pick us up. Since my grandmother worked during most of that time, she couldn't pick us up either. However, she'd known this particular cabbie, Thomas, for decades. Whenever my grandmother would call the cab company and request his services to bring me or my sister home, Thomas would drop whatever he was doing and come to ferry us home. It didn't matter where he was in the city, it didn't matter what he was doing, he always helped my grandmother when she called. Thomas had enormous respect and affection for my grandmother. And my grandmother? Well, she liked Thomas in her own way, but her way of expressing it was none too pleasant: "He's one of the good darkies."

My grandfather was a different sort of bigot. While my grandmother tended towards the they're-not-as-good-as-us-but-they're-okay-as-long-as-they-know-their-place sort of racism, my grandfather was more blunt: "God, I hate n*ggers." Pleasant, I know.

Imagine that you were born and raised while racial segregation still existed. Now imagine that your parents were openly scornful and condescending towards blacks. Now try and imagine that you'd grow up with absolutely no ingrained racial prejudice. I'm going to bet that it wouldn't be easy.

That was my mother's environment. She grew up in a household where bigotry wasn't treated as such, but rather regarded as a fact of life. To her credit, she's done yeoman's work trying to not be her parents, at least in this one regard. But there have been one or two occassions when my mother would drink and her inner demons would come out and she would say some things about blacks that, were she sober, she would never say.

Maybe there is truth in wine. Maybe this is who, in her heart of hearts, my mother really is. But I will tell you right now that it isn't who she wants to be. It's not even who she thinks she is, at least on a concious level. And so the struggle continues.

Anyway, I've been thinking about this ever since Mel Gibson started blaming the Jews for all wars and whatever else sprang to mind. Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Mel's dad is, to be blunt, a raving anti-Semitic Holocaust denying loon. Let that be the major influence in Gibson's life growing up.

Now imagine that you've worked in Hollywood for about 30 years. Despite working in an industry with a large jewish population, you haven't offered public evidence of anti-Semitism(no Passion comments, please, because I don't believe that the film was anti-Semitic). And then one night you get a bit tipsy and the mask slips, revealing the ugly beast within. Is that who you really are? Probably so. But is it who you want to be?

Gibson's comments give a fair indication that he has some serious issues with Jews. There's really no other way to interpret his words. But he's somehow managed to work for more than two decades surrounded by the people that he dislikes deep down without somehow getting quoted, recorded or reported for anti-Semitic remarks until recently. So is it likely that Mel wants to be an anti-Semite? There's no question that he is, but is it who he wants to be? Or has Mel been, apparently unsuccessfully, trying to escape his past?

People are rightfully beating up Mel for what he said. Some of Gibson's critics, though, have apparently fallen on their heads. I offer Ann Althouse, an otherwise sensible person, as a prime example:


What artist has ever crashed like this? Not Michael Jackson. Not Woody Allen. Not O.J. Simpson. You’ve shown an evil heart and it changes the meaning of all of your artistic work. How horrible! How painful!

Uh huh. Gibson drove while intoxicated and spouted some anti-Semitic garbage. Stating that that is a worse offense than either a double-homicide or pedophilia pretty makes me think that you should switch to decaff.

Update: James Joyner weighs in with similar thoughts:

While the nature of his remarks, combined with the radical notions of the sect to which he adheres, makes it impossible for me to believe that he is not anti-Semitic, it’s not implausible to me that Gibson–who, after all, has made his living for the past thirty-odd years in an industry where Jews are not strangers–honestly believes otherwise.

Update: Entered into the Beltway Traffic Jam here. Go for more interesting links.

Update: Here I was set to make a snarky post about Abraham Foxman and he comes out and says this. Kudos Mr. Foxman.

Posted by Physics Geek at August 2, 2006 09:24 AM | TrackBack StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble It!
Comments

When I was in high school back in 1975 I had a black (the popular word back then) friend and for awhile dated a black girl, my friends sister. By the way in 1975 that was a good way to find out who your true friends were.

Let's look at it from another side, people who were not prejudiced but could be thought to be by their words.

Well my paternal grandparents lived near me and I was very close to them. My grandparents used the word colored. When my friend and girlfriend were around them it would bother me. Then both my friend and girlfriend took me aside and said they were not offended because they understood that that was the word my grandparents had learned when young. In fact they told me their own grandparents used the word. They also told me something that made me respect my grandparents even more. They told me that they could tell by the way my grandparents treated them that my grandparents had no prejudice in them.

I realize that this is not the same as what Mel did, but it does illustrate how easily the term racist can be thrown around. My friends could have easily disregarded my grandparents actions and concentrated on the word. They did not and we all got along.

As I grow older I realize even more that it is the actions not the words. I sometimes slip into using the term black because that was the term in vogue during my formative years. Does that make me prejudice? No it just means you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

My grandparents, who grew up in a time of Jim Crow and other stupidity, were decent people who truly did judge people by their character. In a time when inter-racial dating was still nearly a taboo these people showed me what true character was and should be.

Posted by: JAH at August 2, 2006 11:38 AM

My father, born in 1911, was raised by a strict German father, and was taught typical Germanic views (at that time) of "schwartz" people and Jews.

He occasionally would explain to me how he worked to overcome his father's teachings. He was a high school teacher in Chicago, and taught a lot of Jews and Blacks, so it was a constant battle.

One incite he gave me was that there always are a few people that fit the stereotype of the and I should not be mislead into believing that just because one person fits the stereotype, all are like that.

Applying that rule of the stereotype to Mel's case, I would conclude that most Hollywood actors are not hypocrits who project one personna, (with the help of agents, studios, PR spots, etc.) while actually being entirely different, unless exposed by the universal truth serum known as alcohol.

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