Semantics 101 with Mel Gibson (July 24, 2010)

This article was originally published in RootSpeak on 7/20/10

I took up the idea of writing this piece nearly a week ago, and at the time wondered about the lag between thought and fruition. Would the Gibson story seem passe by the time my words went to print? It appears I had no reason to fret. Our friend Mel remains as relevant, in the very loosest sense of the term, as he did a fortnight ago, when the story broke of his ugly, and allegedly violent breakup with 40 year – old Russian pianist and singer-songwriter, Oksana Grigorieva.

Still, aren’t we all, Whoopi Goldberg notwithstanding, just a little bored of “Meltdown” Gibson (so nicknamed by celebrity blogger, Perez Hilton)? For 25 years, the man was a bankable, and beloved Hollywood film star – before he spent the last four years self-destructing. In a rare and career suicidal display of cross cultural bigotry, Gibson’s latest brush with TMZ notoriety includes rage-filled epithets hurled at every group from women, to Hispanics to African Americans. There may yet be a remote village in the farthest corner of the Earth upon which the actor did not drop a hate bomb. Oh and I almost forgot to mention, each one of these displays of human acceptance was directed, if only tangentially, at the real target of his unhinged explosions – the mother of his eight month-old daughter, Lucia.

It’s tough to hide from taped evidence, isn’t it Mel? If nothing else, 2006 should have taught him that. And yet despite the repeated and increasingly unsettling pieces of evidence to the contrary, somewhere, some part of us wants to believe it might all be a terrible mistake. For goodness sake, this is the Oscar winning filmmaker who gave us the true cinematic classic, Braveheart, in 1995. One of the many, many questions we ask ourselves was if Gibson has always been this way. Was he always a hateful, angry and intolerant man? If so, why didn’t we see it?

Maybe we didn’t want to. We liked his public persona, the handsome face and the solid acting a little too much. I am not about to say that children are always guilty of the sins of the father – far from it. However proverbs become so for a reason, and in this case, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Gibson’s equally colorful papa, Hutton, is a renowned reactionary Catholic, who has publicly espoused the beliefs, among many plums, that the Holocaust is a hoax, and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were perpetrated by remote control. He also considers himself the enemy of 1965’s Vatican II reforms, labeling them “a Masonic plot backed by the Jews.” With a strong parental figure of this nature, it seems nearly a foregone conclusion that young Mel would develop some backward looking ideas in his own right.

And yet all seemed well as the young Aussie burst onto the Hollywood scene. He worked with a multicultural, diverse talent pool over many auspicious years. Most conspicuously, he starred with the African-American acting legend Danny Glover in the wildy successful Lethal Weapon franchise. There were no obvious signs during Gibson’s sexy 1980’s heydeys that anything was amiss.

However the world has changed considerably since the Me Decade, a time when entertainment news was gleaned from glossy pages of Peoplemagazine, or dealt out in measured televised doses by John Tesh. Since the explosion of the Internet and its naughty band of guerrilla journalists, the news cycle is never off and everything is on the record. Gibson’s biggest personal failure, in more than one respect, is to adapt with the times. Grigorieva, tired of serving as a human punching bag, and obviously nobody’s fool, was ready with the audio recording capability to capture her babydaddy’s true colors. The world wide web was more than willing to help her publicize them.

At least in 2006, Gibson was able to plead a feeble case for his diarrhea of the mouth by hiding behind the bottle. After being pulled over for a suspected DUI in Malibu, California, the actor, drowning in a tequila bottle of his own hubris, managed to greet a female officer as “sugar tits,” and declare that “Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world,” before being hauled in for his now classic, half smiling mug shot. A breathalyzer test registered Gibson’s blood alcohol at .12%, one and a half times the legal limit. We’ve all said insane things we didn’t mean while extremely intoxicated, things we remembered with disgust and shame the following morning, so after a long mea culpa tour, America seemed poised to consider letting the actor out of the pop culture penalty box, however cautiously.

But something never sat right with most of us, and I think it’s becoming clear now that our collective suspicion of the entertainer’s slip as the Freudian kind was well justified. Forgive me for saying this, but 0.12 isn’t that hammered, not intoxicated enough anyway to allow a grown, healthy, man to say things he doesn’t at least partly mean. The cast of the Jersey Shore blows a 0.12 before noon. Liquor frequently leads to ugly revelation of the darkest, but still integral self. In vino, veritas after all.

Then the question remains: should Mel Gibson waste our time, in addition to his own, with another image rehab trip? I would argue that it’s pointless, and if he has good people (who truly have a yeoman’s work in the actor’s employ), they will send him underground for a long while before they allow him to say anything to anybody on any topic. What can he do at this point, deny that these awful words are his own? Anyone who has logged on to Radar Online has heard the repugnant and vicious spewings of Gibson toward his former girlfriend. They are difficult to take. The man simply has no credibility in claiming he has learned from his mistakes or grown as a human.

No less a writer than The New York Times columnist David Brooks, pens of Gibson’s verbal assaults on Grigorieva, “He’s not really arguing with her, just trying to pulverize her into nothingness, like some corruption that has intertwined itself into his being and now must be expunged.”

If that interpretation is typical of the average American mindset, Gibson has an impossible mountain to climb. Culture has a funny way of moving forward without the buy-in of would be standard bearers, and suddenly the 54 year-old Gibson seems a relic of a bygone era, one with which post-Obama America wants nothing to do. There is no stint in rehab, no revealing interview with Oprah, or any amount of charity work that can put the blinders back over our eyes. The best gift Mel Gibson can give the public from here on is silence.

NPR: National Public Ruckus (October 25, 2010)

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Bill O’Reilly is having a hell of a month. The professional muckraker and Fox News pugilist managed to manipulate his proffered vision of a tyrannically liberal media into a self-fulfilling prophecy on October 14th. That was the Thursday when, embroiled in a heated discussion with the ladies of “The View” over whether or not the “Ground Zero” mosque should ever see the light of day, O’Reilly caused co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk offstage mid-broadcast with five little incendiary words: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” When head diva Barbara Walters responded by saying “I love my colleagues, but that should not have happened,” I am sure old Bill had trouble containing his glee.

Over the course of O’Reilly’s long career, I have witnessed this pattern over and again, the consistency of a practiced bully: keep yelling and poking until you hit the right nerve, then stand back and act befuddled, telling your adoring audience, “See, you can’t even have a conversation with these guys!” But why fix what isn’t broken? If nothing else, I admire the man’s PR savvy. After “The View” confrontation, that evening’s broadcast of “The O’Reilly Factor” welcomed over four million viewers, easily trouncing the competition at CNN, MSNBC and Headline News.

Joy and Whoopi played right into O’Reilly’s hand and all parties earned a couple of days of front and center media coverage. This is a page from the Fox host’s established playbook. However, I don’t believe the talking head was egomaniacal enough to predict that lightning would strike twice for him in the cultural zeitgeist this month. O’Reilly was nothing more than a fortunate bystander in last week’s blow up between NPR and longtime political analyst Juan Williams, and yet one can be certain that the incident created another occasion for the Fox News star to do the happy dance.

By now anyone who hasn’t been hiding in an underground bunker (a tantalizing prospect before next week’s midterm elections to be sure), has heard the famous exchange between Williams and O’Reilly that led to the former’s axe from liberal media stalwart National Public Radio:

“I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot,” Williams said. “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” To the suggestion that an expression of these views might be a bit, un-PC shall we say, Williams went on to state: “Look, political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality.”

NPR did not wait long to act. In a tersely worded statement, the media giant called Williams a “valuable contributor” but said that his comments “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices, and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR.” And there you have it, right?

Wrong. In a turn of events that it is now certain NPR never predicted, the conglomerate began to take hits from all sides of the political and ideological spectrum. The axis of most of these potshots rotates around a single question: in this age of corporate media domination, a time of 24-hour viral spin, is there room left for free speech? For one moment, professionals of all stripes have been able to put aside the partisan spin to take an overdue look at the journalistic profession, a sector that has begun to have the kind of approval ratings that make members of Congress appear positively loveable by comparison.

The behemoth “liberal media” banner has taken so many punches lately from so many silos, I sincerely hope the vocation has given consideration to investing in one of the “Cadillac” health care plans that President Obama discussed last summer. Predictably, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, who has since offered the sacked Williams a job at the conservative outlet, labeled the analyst “an honest man whose freedom of speech is protected by Fox News on a daily basis.” One can hardly blame the network for its carpe diem approach to casting itself as the last bastion of the First Amendment, irritating as it may be.

However, more surprising was the response from left leaning publications like The Washington Post, which labeled the NPR imbroglio, “Williams’ Shirley Sherrod moment.” This reference to the former Georgia State Director of Rural Development for the USDA, who was unceremoniously dumped by the Department after a manipulative video produced by conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart framed her as a racist, is pregnant with meaning.

While Juan Williams’ statements on “The O’Reilly Factor” may have been cringe worthy to a subset of the American audience, they were clearly offered as opinion, a reflection of the commentator’s own experience and internal struggles, rather than a journalistic conclusion. The point of the dialogue, which lovers of Western democracy claim they desire, was to facilitate a discussion about the visceral reactions associated with wearers of traditional Muslim garb onboard aircraft. While Williams’ comments may have been clumsily framed, they should not have been cause for dismissal. Was O’Reilly sacked for his blanketed, incendiary rhetoric on “The View?” Once we start firing people for sharing their fears openly, no matter how misinformed we might find them, we have entered a new era of McCarthyism.

And the association between NPR and intolerance may lead to expensive repercussions beyond the costs of image repair. As the Associated Press reports:

“In response to the firing, South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint planned to introduce legislation to end federal funding for NPR, his spokesman Wesley Denton said Thursday night. Denton said the senator would expand upon his proposal in a statement on Friday.”

In rejoinder to this bit of legislative opportunism, sometimes Republican lawmakers and full-time media whores Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee joined the braying chorus for NPR’s figurative head. Yes, the non-profit membership media organization acted hastily, and perhaps unfairly, in its handling of Juan Williams, but blatant cynicism on top of cynicism is clearly no solution at all.

There are, however, questions to answer. Many card carrying liberals are uncomfortable with the proximity of NPR’s recent intolerance of dissenting opinion to the “fair and balanced” right wing slant from which the media warhorse once sought to set itself apart.