Thursday, February 19, 2004

Theologies: I'm usually an admirer of Cathy Young's columns. Aside from being one of the few voices of reason at the Boston Globe, she is also a thoughtful and evenhanded critic. So I was surprised to see her latest piece on the Mel Gibson movie about the life and death of Jesus -- and it's possibly anti-semitic undertones.

(By the way, I think Gibson's making art, in it's broadest sense. While the debate about his film is fine, realize please that it is thoroughly moot. See the first amendment on this. It could be an anti-semitic screed and that would change my opinion not a bit. Don't see his movie if you're afraid that latent anti-semitism or confusing messages in the film might turn you into Hitler.)

At any rate, Young picks up the thread at Holocaust denial, since, as she says, Gibson's father is fairly well known for holding such beliefs. This makes no sense at all. It's simply a convenient way to smuggle the issue within the walls of legitimacy. As far as I know, what someone's father believes is wholly irrelevant. I'll let it slide, though. Luckily, Gibson himself is on record on the matter, so what his father believes can be ignored. Gibson himself, when asked whether the Holocaust happened, said:

I have friends and parents of friends who have numbers on their arms. The guy who taught me Spanish was a Holocaust survivor. He worked in a concentration camp in France. Yes, of course. Atrocities happened. War is horrible. The Second World War killed tens of millions of people. Some of them were Jews in concentration camps. Many people lost their lives. In the Ukraine, several million starved to death between 1932 and 1933. During the last century, 20 million people died in the Soviet Union.
Asks Young, "Does this answer exonerate Gibson, or does he damn himself with his own words?" That is, by putting the Holocaust in the historical context of World War 2, is he in fact guilty of the lesser crime of Holocaust "minimization"? Young admits that our society has a double standard, whereby the systematic murder of Jews by Hitler is held up as a model of evil, while the systematic murder of Ukranians, Turkic tribes in Northeast Russia, intellectuals, and dissenters is itself minimized. But, she says, "that hardly justifies Gibson's comments."

Okay, here's my point. It seems odd that, in the context of Gibson's "theological" film, Young is airing one of the orthodoxies of American society, from which there can be no dissent: that the Holocaust was a societal singularity, different from any other atrocity not by magnitude of tragedy, but by kind. The worst thing I think I can say about Gibson's comment is that it is insensitive, given the context of the question. He could have simply said, "Yes, the Holocaust happened," and skipped airing his political views. But his views are not entirely illegitimate and false on their face. Let me be frank: I happen to disagree with him. I think the Holocaust probably was a tragedy of unique kind, perhaps mainly because Hitler made no serious attempt to hide his "final solution" from the world -- and the world still dicked around. But might my feelings be different were I a Ukrainian? And if so, are my feelings illegitimate? Furthermore, is it even helpful to have an atrocity hierarchy that determines whose slaughter must be venerated over another's? I don't think so, and I don't think it's anti-semitic to say so.

In other words, I don't think Young has proved anything, about Gibson, about his film, about the Holocaust. The man might well be a raving Jew-hater -- and perhaps not. He may simply be impolitic with his words. He may feel that more attention is owed to those who suffered under the twin evil to fascism -- communist dictatorship. As I said, this would make him rude, but not necessarily wrong. To say otherwise is uncut political correctness.

More: Young is at least correct that David Bernstein's post on the subject at the Volokh Conspiracy is worth reading. He has some well-founded suspicions about Gibson's answer. I do too, but Cathy Young implies that there is no excuse for the content of Gibson's remarks. I disagree. See also Sasha, who says, "There's nothing I strictly speaking disagree with in what he said, and to the extent he's trying to place the Holocaust in the context of other large atrocities (including other victims of World War II and victims of Stalinist terror), I don't mind, as I'm not into the moral uniqueness of the Holocaust."

Still more: Here's some on the elder Gibson, who sounds like a crank. it includes the quote from Gibson fils from the Diane Sawyer interview:

Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenceless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do; absolutely . . . It was an atrocity of monumental proportion.
About the best you can say is that it's less of a hedge.

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