Saturday, August 19, 2006

What Mel Gibson tells us about politics.

There's perception, and there's reality.

It's a private theory of mine, well supported by casual research, that the best villains are played by actors who are actually sweet people. Boris Karloff played monsters, and yet was widely regarded by all who knew him as a kind and generous soul.

On the other hand, from the same era, there's Wallace Beery, who was best known for playing lovable slob types. Jackie Cooper: Cooper later gave the real story. He said Beery was a violent, foul-mouthed drunkard who was disliked by those he worked with. Cooper even said Beery had been abusive towards him and he could not stand working with him. He said Beery was one of the cruelest most sadistic people he had ever known.

And why does this common dichotomy disturb so many people? We are talking about actors, who make their living by pretending to be someone they are not. It makes sense to me that, at the highest levels of craft in this profession, the best actors are those who are capable of playing someone who is 180 degrees from their actual persona, and doing it well.

In fact, my theory about the best villains contains a corollary; that it is freeing, again craft-wise, to play someone who is not like yourself, so that you can be objective about the best way to convey the required persona.

And just what does this have to do with Mel Gibson and politics? It's about a very common phenomena that causes extensive misery: loving the illusion.

For a few decades now, Mel Gibson has successfully projected a loveable guy. A little hot-tempered, sure, and maybe not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but oh-so-funny, and on the side of truth and justice, fer sure. And in one drunken rant, this image has been upended.

And there has been no end of people rushing to the rationalization. From "you can't take drunks seriously" to "yes, the Jews are behind it all!" the outpouring in defense of shattered illusions has been large and strident. And utterly misguided.

It is undeniable that Gibson has revealed a side of himself that has been successfully kept hidden. And I think it's undeniable that impaired judgement played a part, but it does not excuse the sentiments expressed.

I may be wrong, but based on my personal experience, what a person does under the influence of alcohol is a reliable guide to what they are really like. For instance, I am what is known as a "happy drunk." If I have a few glasses of wine, I get philosophical, opinionated, rabidly interested in psychological structures, and empathetic to the point of sappiness. But then again, I'm like that sober.

Gibson didn't get drunk and rave about aliens infesting his tighty-whities. And if he had, the explanation would be written off as a delusion. Sure, this would alienate the aliens, who would not finance his movies in future. But it wouldn't necessarily upset his image. And if we discovered that his father was well-known for his own theory about underwear-aliens, we would nod to each other and say, "That's where he got it from."

I think this same explanation covers what Gibson actually did. Unlike alien-paranoia, which could, with judicious attention to undergarment purchases, be kept under control, anti-Semitism is a virulent and unexcusable prejudice. It's a little more understandable in a Midwestern farm family who might not have met an actual person of the Jewish faith in generations. It's inconceivable in a person whose professional career involves working with people of all persuasions, some of whom are Jewish.

So the reality has to be: Gibson is an anti-Semite. He does hold unreasoning prejudices against a certain group of people, and maybe more, for all we know. And the fact that he's admitted to substance abuse problems does not change this fact.

In fact, it explains it. It must not be easy being Mel Gibson, having to hold two irreconcilable facts in his head at all times. He hangs on to his anti-Semitism as a link to his father, a professional Holocause debunker. And he is confronted, day after day, with people who are Jewish and yet do not fit his preconceptions.

It's enough to drive a man to drink.

It's a fact of Hollywood that harsh truths about real actors can cause career ripples. And the same applies to politicians. There are few cliches more enduring than the public face of piety and goodness being ripped away to show the real monster beneath the mask. It's enough to make cynics mistrust any public face.

But just because a public face can be manipulated doesn't mean they all are. Because if we are willing to look for the signs of the real face, they are always there.

This isn't the first time Gibson has been accused of anti-Semitism. It's just the first time the evidence has been so stark. And from the time I heard about George W Bush's mocking imitation of a death-row murderer pleading for her life, a request that was met, out of many possible responses, with an absolute relish for ensuring her demise, I knew about Bush.

It has nothing to do with pros or cons about the death penalty, or guilt versus innocence, or Texas politics.

"Please," Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, "don't kill me." The Houston Chronicle, August 10, 1999

The mask slipped. We saw how Bush uses power. And there's not enough rationalizations in the world to explain away how easily Bush revealed himself to a newspaper reporter. By his own claim, Bush was not drinking at this point in time.

Whether you are voting for the Leader of the Free World or choosing a date, it's important to remember to look beneath the illusion. We all try to put our best face forward. How closely does the reality match that face? Clues abound. We only have to look for them.

Instead, too often, we settle for the comforting illusion. It's so much nicer. It makes us feel so much better. And when we go for a drive down a dark road with an oh-so-charming person, the moment when the mask comes off is lit by the flash of hindsight.

Of course! It's so obvious now!

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