Schlock, Yes; Awe, No; Fascism, Probably
The flogging Mel Gibson demands.
The gay movement in the United States—and the demand for civil unions and even for actual marriage—has had at least one good effect with which nobody can quarrel. The closeted homosexual is a sad figure from the past, and so is the homosexual who tries desperately to "marry" a heterosexual, thus increasing misery and psychic repression all round.
This may seem like an oblique way in which to approach Mel Gibson's ghastly movie ThePassion. But it came back to me this week that an associate of his had once told me, in lacerating detail, that an evening with Mel was one long fiesta of boring but graphic jokes about anal sex. I've since had that confirmed by other sources. And, long before he emerged as the spear-carrier for the sort of Catholicism once preached by Gen. Franco and the persecutors of Dreyfus, Mel Gibson attained a brief notoriety for his loud and crude attacks on gays. Now he's become the proud producer of a movie that relies for its effect almost entirely on sadomasochistic male narcissism. The culture of blackshirt and brownshirt pseudomasculinity, as has often been pointed out, depended on some keen shared interests. Among them were massively repressed homoerotic fantasies, a camp interest in military uniforms, an obsession with flogging and a hatred of silky and effeminate Jews. Well, I mean to say, have you seen Mel's movie?
I think that it's a healthy sign for our society that so many Jews have decided to be calm and unoffended by the film, and that so many Christians say they don't feel any worse about Jews after having seen it. We have a social consensus where Jews feel more secure and Christians less insecure. Good. But this does not alter the fact that The Passion is anti-Semitic in intention and its director anti-Semitic by nature. Some people including myself think that Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League are too easily prone to charge the sin of anti-Semitism. But if someone denies the Holocaust one day and makes a film accusing Jews of Christ-killing the next day, I have to say that if he's not anti-Jewish then he's certainly getting there.
It's important to scan the Reader's Digest interview with Mel Gibson. He was questioned by Peggy Noonan, who was almost as simperingly lenient in print as Diane Sawyer was on the small screen. Noonan asked him a question that he must have known was coming, and which he must have prepared for, and she asked him in effect to "make nice" and agree that the Holocaust actually had occurred. His answer was, to all effects and purposes, a cold and flat "no." A lot of people, he agreed, had died in the last war. No doubt many Jews were among the casualties. It's one of the most frigid and shrugging things I have ever read. You would not know from this response that the war was begun by a fascist ruling party that believed in a Jewish world conspiracy, and thus that all of those killed were in part victims of anti-Semitism. (Some of the more tribal ADL advocates might also bear this in mind.)
But then, you were not brought up by Mel Gibson's father, who has repeatedly and recently stated that there was a population explosion among European Jews in the years 1933-1945 and that the Holocaust story is mainly "fiction." Young Gibson, when asked about this by Diane Sawyer, told her not to press him (which she obediently did not). But when asked by Noonan, he replied by saying that "My father has never told me a lie." It's not fair to expect Mel to trash his father. But he could have said that the old man was a fine daddy, albeit with a few odd ideas of his own. It was his very decided choice, however, to say that his male parent was an unvarying truth-teller. Why pick on that formulation? It's unlikely that Gibson Sr. has made a secret of his viciously anti-Jewish views when talking to his son, who shares with him a fanatical attachment to the Latin Mass and a deep hostility to the "liberalism" of the present pope.
So let us not be euphemistic about what is staring us in the face. Last Wednesday, the Lovingway United Pentecostal Church in Denver posted a sign on its roadside marquee. It read "Jews Killed the Lord Jesus." This pigsty of a church has, I think you will agree, an unimprovable name. But its elders, or whatever they call themselves, can't have had time to see the movie, which only opened that same Ash Wednesday. Nor, I think it safe to say, had they chosen the slogan only on the spur of the moment. No: They had been thinking this for quite a long time and were emboldened to "come out" and say so under the cover of a piece of devotional cinematic pornography. Some of us saw this coming. In America, I hope and believe, the sinister effect will be blunted by generations of civilized co-existence. But think for a moment what will happen when Gibson reaps the residual and overseas profits from screenings of the film in Egypt and Syria, or in Eastern Europe, where things are a bit more raw. Who can believe that he did not anticipate, and intend, this result?
Apparently seeking to curry favor, Gibson announced a few weeks ago that he had cut the scene where a Jewish mob yells for the blood of Jesus to descend on the heads of its children (a scene that occurs in only one of the four contradictory Gospels). Gibson lied. The scene is still there, spoken in Aramaic. Only the English subtitle has been removed. Propagandists in other countries will be able to subtitle it any way they like. This is all of a piece with the general moral squalor of his project. Gibson's producer lied when he said that a pope Gibson despises had endorsed the film. He would not show the movie to anyone who might object in advance. He will not debate any of his critics, and he relies on star-stricken pulp interviewers to feed him soft questions. Now, as the dollars begin to flow from this front-loaded fruit-machine of cynical publicity, he is sobbing about the risks and sacrifices he has made for the Lord. A coward, a bully, a bigmouth, and a queer-basher. Yes, we have been here before. The word is fascism, in case you are wondering, and we don't have to sit through that movie again.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.