I have a feeling the kind of people who tend to ignore and excuse the anti-Semitic screeds coming out of Hezbollah will also be the kind of people who regard every awful word Mel Gibson said while plastered as a true expression of what he really, secretly believes.
There is an overly large group of people out there willing to look for nuance in the fanatically eliminationist rhetoric of Iran's President. His statements are never made under the influence of alcohol, and yet his stone-cold sober rantings about the destruction of Israel and his hints about nuclear weapons are parsed away and ascribed to the particular nuances of his culture. But Mel Gibson? Let's all pretend we know exactly what he thinks when he's sober, based on the balderdash he roars with a bottle of Tequila under his belt.
It bothers me when smart people who know better believe that canard. After all, do our courts allow witnesses to offer their solemn testimony while plowed? If one tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth when snockered, then perhaps our courts ought to require witnesses to demonstrate a sufficiently elevated BAC to testify.
Alcohol is not a truth serum, of course; it just makes you stupid (or more stupid) when taken to excess. There is no empirical evidence that drunks are any more truthful than sober people. It's an old wives' tale that alcohol opens a window on one's soul. Alas, it's a tale some people would just love to believe. ADL National Director Abe Foxman said:
It is unfortunate that it took an excess of booze and an encounter with a traffic cop to reveal what was really in his heart and mind.
We would hope that Hollywood now would realize the bigot in their midst and that they will distance themselves from this anti-Semite.
Maybe Mel Gibson is a closet Jew-hater, and maybe he isn't. But pretending to learn a person's true character based on what he says while drunk and handcuffed in the backseat of a police car is absurd. Still, among those smart people ready to judge Gibson a closet Nazi is Christopher Hitchens:
One does not abruptly decide, between the first and second vodka, or the ticks of the indicator of velocity, that the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are valid after all.
That is not my experience. During my last year in law school, I was an intern prosecutor in Oklahoma . I dealt with hundreds of DUI cases that year and tried a few. I read police reports about all sorts of stops and found the behavior of the defendants varied widely. The specific effects of drunkenness, beyond the most clinical physiological ones, are just not predictable.
Some people get sleepy, some people get witty and funny and loud, and some people get mean and even violent and take a swing at a friend or a cop. Alcohol is a depressant that removes inhibitions, and it makes people do things that they wouldn't ever consider doing when sober. Drunk people will attack friends or family members whom they love. The "Girls Gone Wild" video series is testament to the power of booze to prompt behavior in young women that they might otherwise be ashamed of. And the phenomenon of "beer goggles," in which unattractive women appear more and more attractive the more one drinks, has led many a man to do things he wished he hadn't.
Alcohol can even affect someone's judgment to the point that getting behind the wheel of a car while soused seems like a perfectly reasonable idea. And while no one I know has ever conjured up a Jew-baiting reverie like Mr. Gibson's after a few drinks, we all know people who have said something indiscreet, offensive, or hurtful that they really, honest-to-God wish they had left unsaid because they truly do not believe it.
YET LET'S ASSUME THAT MEL GIBSON really does, on some level, think some of the things he said. There's a larger question underneath this controversy: let's assume there does exist an "inhibited" version of us, and also a chemically uninhibited version. Which one is the "real" person, and which is the artifice? Most of us are proud of our victories over our inner childishness; if I am in my heart a glutton with a lust for fried okra, but I manage to curb that impulse, enjoy okra in moderation, and drop ten pounds, that might give me a small sense of accomplishment. But whose was the victory? Am I the glutton, or am I the rational person who saw and acted upon the need to control my gluttony?
As both a Christian and a conservative, I believe all men are fallen and flawed. The institutions of civilization -- Church, family, the law, civil society -- help us steer away from our hearts' jagged shoals. Each of us struggle with our own foibles, and our much more sinister demons -- the impulses or attitudes we know to be wrong but cannot exorcise. But out of self-interested careerism, out of love for our families, out of religious obligation, or simply out of a fear of looking at ourselves in the mirror if we fail, we learn, most of the time, to work around the baser angels of our nature.
Then there is the alternative view of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the ultimate progenitor of modern leftism. "Rousseau first made it fashionable," a professor of mine once memorably lectured, "to despise one's own culture." Rousseau believed that man's true character manifests itself in a state of nature -- a pre-civilizational state. He wanted to get back to that authentic, primitive expression of our true selves and rejected the constraints and conventions of civilization as impediments to this goal. Hence the modern left's emphasis on the virtue of "authenticity," and on the need to escape from the cruel expectations of society in order to liberate our true being.
While some inhibitions are damaging or irrational, most of them are there for a reason. Our inhibitions are part of us and we ignore them -- and suppress them, chemically or otherwise -- at great peril. Me, I like my inhibitions. They're part of me, and they usually keep the rest of me out of trouble.
I'VE WANDERED FAR FROM that Santa Monica road where this essay started, but ended up at a curiously political overlook of Gibson's troubles. If one tends to think that our truest selves emerge only when our social inhibitions are removed, then one sees in Gibson's drunken self his true and unencumbered self. It is not surprising that Christopher Hitchens, a man of the left, might jump to this conclusion.
But if one tends to think that our true and higher self is manifested in society, then one sees Gibson's folly differently. Gibson may, given his upbringing, harbor prejudices that he knows are shameful and wrong. But he ordinarily pushes these evil thoughts out of his mind (after all, it's not like he has a long track record of anti-Semitic statements) until one fateful evening where alcohol breaks down the barriers he built against them.
Gibson said some truly ugly, awful things and this column is in no way a defense of them. He deserves harsh criticism for his irresponsibility and carelessness, not only in driving drunk and endangering innocent bystanders, but in losing control of his mouth. Either he got drunk and said something stupid that he really never believed at all, or possibly he exposed a shameful part of his soul that should have been cut out or at least quarantined far away from the rest of his life.
Either way, his apology is only the tiniest step toward making things right again. His colleagues in Hollywood and the press are correct to demand he finally and unequivocally answers the questions about his views -- completely, and completely sober. Let's hope he will prove to us that his shame and contrition, not his booze-addled bile, is a product of who he really is.
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