Enough time has passed since Mel Gibson’s arrest for driving while intoxicated to ask this question in a dispassionate and reasoned manner: Is Mel Gibson an anti-Semite?
My answer? I have no idea. But neither do the people who have been making that charge on the basis of the things Gibson said when he was arrested a few weeks back. I am not saying those things were excusable. That would be ridiculous. They were spiteful words, meant to wound the Jewish policeman who arrested him. They were stupid too. But there is no reason to assume that they offer a window to Gibson’s soul.
Gibson has a drinking problem; he admits that, and the rumor is that he has entered a rehabilitation program. But that is not what is at issue. If he had been filmed dancing around a night club with a lampshade on is head singing Cole Porter songs, the story would be important, but minor in comparison to the current brouhaha. My point is only that those who contend that Gibson’s words while drunk reveal his true feelings are either jumping to an unwarranted conclusion, or are calculatingly and disingenuously seizing this opportunity to bash Gibson to further an agenda in the culture wars.
The old cliché in vino veritas is true, but only some of the time.
I have some background in these things. I was a bartender from my late teens until I was in my late twenties, back in the 1960s. (You could both drink and tend bar at the age of 18 in New York City in those years.) I am able to spot every stage in a drunk’s progression, from “feeling good” through slightly tipsy to drunk as a skunk. And, not always, but frequently enough to matter, the things people say when they are drunk are things they know are wrong and shameful. The drunk will blurt them out anyway because he no longer cares about what is right and proper, often because he is seeking to hurt the person at whom the comments are directed, in a rush of anger unleashed by the alcohol.
There is no way to prove this, of course, but I would bet that if the police officer who arrested Gibson had had an Italian last name, Gibson would have hurled insults at him that made some reference to the Mafia; or that a policeman with an Irish name would have been hit with a barrage of insults about how he could spend his time more profitably looking for all the Irish drunks on the road who were more of a danger than Gibson.
Perhaps you have to be an older Catholic to understand what I am getting at, to know what is meant by the term the “scars of Original Sin.” But come on, all of us have thoughts that arise every once in a while, thoughts that we know are wrong and which we know we must suppress. You know what I am referring to maybe some fantasies about the cute new number in the secretarial pool or the pile of cash that sits in our place of business before the end-of-the-day tally, or about how easy it would be to ruin the reputation of our rival for a promotion with a little white lie. We could go on. Unfair generalizations about various ethnic groups are in this mix for most of us. (How many of us would want the world to hear the things we grumble to ourselves when a driver with distinctive ethnic characteristics, anything from a tweedy, horn-rimmed WASP to a turbaned Sikh, cuts us off dangerously in heavy traffic?)
We are virtuous not because we do not have thoughts such as these. We are virtuous when we overcome them, when we do not act upon them, when we realize they are base and shameful urges we must suppress to become the person the Lord wants us to be. Adam and Eve ate the apple. We have an inclination to sin.
Back when I tended bar, I would hear people insult their spouses and make cruel and disparaging comments about every ethnic group under the sun, often their own. I’m serious. I have heard Irish-American and Italian-American drunks get in the face of members of their own ethnic groups with the disparaging terms for Italians and the Irish that we all know. When they sobered up they became genuinely contrite, not because their true feelings surfaced and they were shamed, but because ugly thoughts that they knew were ugly had come out of mouths. It is not always a mealy-mouthed excuse when someone says he did not mean what he said.
Freud described this process as a clash between the id and the superego. We Catholics know it as something else: overcoming temptation. And our temptations are not who we are; the moral strength we develop to overcome them is. The illicit urges and feelings that beset us are not markers of our true selves, not unless we give in to them and habitually commit the sin to which they lure us. It is only then that the man drawn to illicit sex becomes an adulterer and the man tempted to steal from his employer becomes a thief. The strength of character that we have developed over our lifetimes, through the influence of our parents and teachers, prayer and the sacraments, and which we bring to bear when we are tempted by our ignoble impulses, is the core of our personhood, not the attractions to evil that beset us.
I know: There may be times when what I have just described is not the case, when drinking too much alcohol makes it hard for an individual to carry on a charade contrived to deceive the people in his life into thinking he is something he is not, when the booze causes us to let our guard down. But there is no reason for anyone concerned about being fair-minded to assume that this is what was going on in Mel Gibson’s case. Drinking does not always bring our true feelings to the surface. Not always. More often it unleashes thoughts and impulses that we know are contemptible when we are ourselves not drunk.
No doubt the way Gibson was treated by certain Jewish groups over the release of his movie The Passion of the Christ is part of this story. I would not be surprised if there were moments when Gibson said things to himself about the hypocrisy of Jewish movers and shakers in Hollywood who tried to destroy him back then (and are getting a second chance at it now), things that would sound anti-Semitic if spoken aloud and without the proper qualifiers. Maybe that was the raw nerve that was uncovered by drinking too much on the day he was arrested. Who knows?
What do I mean by “proper qualifiers”? Anger, even intense anger, directed at Jewish pressure groups and Hollywood big wigs does not make one an anti-Semite. One can be angry and resentful at individual Jews without it carrying over to Jews as a whole which is what is required before anti-Semitism becomes an issue. I would bet the ranch that Gibson has no ill feelings for most Jews Jewish taxi drivers and butchers, lawyers and doctors, and the Jews that he employs, for example.
We understand this to be obvious in other cases: We know that an individual can feel an intense dislike for members of the Mafia without being anti-Italian; for British soccer hooligans without being anti-British; or for the Jew-hating goyim who carried out pogroms in Poland without being anti-Polish and anti-Catholic even if the sloppy language this individual employs when drunk blurs this distinction.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)