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MAD TO THE MAX! HOWLER readers have marched to war about Mel Gibson’s movie:


ET TU, COOP? Where do a White House election’s spin-points come from? Once they’re established, they’re hard to dislodge, and spin-points for Campaign 04 are currently being established. Some of these points are baldly inaccurate. And now, even “Coop” has jumped in the stew! In the current Time, Matt Cooper and his pal, John Dickerson, offer this new-classic howler:

COOPER/DICKERSON: How will the campaign take on Kerry? The multipronged strategy is to portray him as too liberal on issues like defense and tax cuts and too unsteady about important principles. That’s why the Bush campaign rushed a Web ad comparing Kerry’s vows to take on the special interests with his record as the Senate’s leading recipient of special-interest money. Bush takes a far greater amount of such lobbyist money, Federal Election Commission records show, but proving Kerry’s hypocrisy was worth exposing Bush’s cozy relationship with corporate special pleaders.
Of course, Kerry isn’t “the Senate’s leading recipient of special-interest money,” as we’ve discussed before. But never mind! A Washington Post article gave that impression—although it didn’t actually say so—and the Bush campaign launched an ad which made the specific claim. Alas, saying it doesn’t make it so; according to Peter Beinart, Kerry actually ranks 92nd among 100 senators when it comes to special interest dough. But the highlighted spin-point is becoming iconic—and even Coop has now repeated it! Is there any way we can have an election without this process occurring?

By the way, pundits are trying to guess Kerry’s veep. Four years ago, they didn’t have a clue about this, even in the last few days before Bush and Gore made their VP choices. More intelligent people would simply stop guessing. But your Washington pundits have time on their hands—and they don’t like talking substance. Keep reading for another example, this time involving SS.

NUMBERS PLEASE: To some observers, Tuesday’s issue of the New York Times seemed to offer an odd contradiction. On the op-ed page, there was Paul Krugman, seeming to say that Social Security was in pretty good shape:

KRUGMAN: [T]he Social Security system is currently taking in much more money than it spends. Thanks to those surpluses, the program is fully financed at least through 2042. The cost of securing the program’s future for many decades after that would be modest—a small fraction of the revenue that will be lost if the Bush tax cuts are made permanent.
Meanwhile, on page 1 of the Business section, Edmund Andrews reviewed a report which seemed to say just the opposite. The report discussed Social Security and Medicare. “[L]ooming shortfalls for the two retirement programs are projected to be in the tens of trillions of dollars,” Andrews wrote. “The Bush administration has estimated that the gap between promises under current law and the revenues expected will total $18 trillion over the next 75 years. But an internal study in 2002 by the Treasury Department, looking much further ahead, concluded that the gap was actually $44 trillion.”

The contradiction was so vast that Andrew Sullivan highlighted it on his eponymous dotcom, although Sully didn’t express a view as to which of the two Times tracts might be more felicitous.

This morning, Krugman works the numbers. What about that $44 trillion in combined deficits? “According to the Treasury study, only 16 percent of that $44 trillion shortfall comes from Social Security,” he says. Beyond that, “62 percent of the combined shortfall comes after 2077”—more than seventy years in the future. Those who want to know the numbers should make it a point to read Krugman’s piece. But why must citizens hunt so hard to get basic facts about seminal issues? Why are simple facts about SS such an unending source of confusion?

The answer, of course, is fairly simple. Your “press corps” likes to talk earth tones and Botox. It hates discussing things that matter. Candidate Bush’s SS proposals played a key role in Campaign 2000. But your press corps did what it always does—it used the issue as a way to reinforce silly “character” tales, and made its usual studied attempt to avoid getting mired down in facts. Will SS become an issue this year? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But why did Tuesday’s Times seem puzzling? Because even the simplest facts about SS are far too dull for the “press” to discuss. Let them eat Botox, your press corps has said. Social Security? To your press corps, that’s dull.

Meanwhile, why not visit out incomparable archives? To review the way the mainstream press blew off this topic during Campaign 2000, just go to our archives for 2002. Scroll back to 5/14/02; a four-part adventure awaits you.

MAD TO THE MAX: HOWLER readers have marched to war about Mel Gibson’s movie. One such reader, suitably miffed, has brilliantly seen through our own corrupt motives. He just wishes the press would do more:

E-MAIL: I don’t mind you playing man of the people on Mel Gibson’s movie, but logic should not fly out the window if you are going to stick to the standards you have set for others.

First of all, Dario Argento is a maker of Italian horror films. Some might find him arty, but knowing who he is is something less than the mark of a highbrow academic, unless the English dept. at Harvard has immersed itself in copies of “Gorezone” magazine.

Well, that’s what happens to logic, I guess, when you adopt a phony, O’Reilly-like populist stance. Is your anecdotal evidence that the people love this movie accurate? I have no idea. I do know a crafty, relentless, LONG pre-release build-up sometimes leads to great box office.

As to Leon Wieseltier, it is not surprising you don’t have the stones to challenge, or even mention, the meat of his piece: that the film is not only anti-Semitic, but that it is filled with images that are classically anti-Semitic. Here, the knowledge and background of one of those “pointy-headed academics” would be quite relevant, possibly damning. Yet that never comes up, because you are too busy clowning in “just plain folks” mode to address what Wieseltier had to say.

Indeed, given the controversy concerning this film, why has no journalist simply asked Gibson, “Well, certainly YOU don’t deny the holocaust of the Jews in WWII?” which could have cleared up everything with a simple no. Disgracefully, to all of us, there seems to be some reason for doubt as to how Gibson would answer that question.

War can be so exhilarating! Let’s work our way up from the bottom.

We don’t have the slightest idea whether Gibson is anti-Semitic. But why has no one “simply asked” about the Holocaust? Actually, one journalist did—Diane Sawyer—on ABC, in front of millions. Here is the passage in question:

SAWYER: In that New York Times Magazine interview, [Gibson’s father] seemed to be questioning the scope of the Holocaust, skeptical that six million Jews had died. So what does Gibson think?

GIBSON: Do I believe that there were concentration camps where defenseless and innocent Jews died cruelly under the Nazi regime? Of course I do, absolutely. It was an atrocity of monumental proportion.

SAWYER: And you believe there were millions, six million?


SAWYER: I think people wondered if your father’s views were your views on this.

GIBSON: Their whole agenda here, my detractors, is to drive a wedge between me and my father. And it’s not going to happen. I love him. He’s my father.

We’re not sure what that can settle, but the mailer asked, so there it is. “Disgracefully,” though, our e-mailer writes, “there seems to be some reason for doubt as to how Gibson would answer that question.” In part, that is true because other warriors have avoided repeating what Gibson said. They wanted our e-mailer kept in the dark, and kept in the dark he remained. For the record, Gibson also discussed Hitler during the interview, calling him “a maniac,” “a madman” and “a monster,” and reviling him because “he believed in the superiority of the Aryan race.” Again, this tells us nothing about Gibson’s film. But the mailer wondered, so again, there it is.

Meanwhile, what about Wieseltier’s claim that, in the mailer’s words, “the film is not only anti-Semitic, but is filled with images that are classically anti-Semitic?” Did we lack “the stones” to confront this assertion? Actually, we thought that Wieseltier’s comments here involved precisely the sort of hyperbole we’ve discussed all week. In part, we left it out to avoid piling on. Here’s the passage to which our mailer refers:
WIESELTIER: In its representation of its Jewish characters, The Passion of the Christ is without any doubt an anti-Semitic movie, and anybody who says otherwise knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film. What is so shocking about Gibson’s Jews is how unreconstructed they are in their stereotypical appearances and actions. These are not merely anti-Semitic images; these are classically anti-Semitic images.
For ourselves, we had a somewhat different reaction to the Jewish characters. We thought one of the Jewish priests (the apparent second-in-command) did appear to have won the Shylock Celebrity Look-Alike Contest, and we would be interested to hear Gibson asked why this actor was cast in the film. But we have persistently heard critics say what Wieseltier implies—that all the priests were “stereotypically Jewish”—and we were surprised when we saw the film because that didn’t seem to be so. (We’re going back again today, specifically to re-examine that question.) Meanwhile, must you “know nothing, or choose to know nothing” to question the film’s anti-Semitism? On ABC, Sawyer asked Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, if he thought The Passion was anti-Semitic. The Foxman clip followed a Q-and-A with Gibson about anti-Semitism:
SAWYER: Are you anti-Semitic?

GIBSON: No, of course not. And here’s the other thing. For me, it goes against the tenets of my faith to be racist in any form. To be anti-Semitic is a sin. It’s been condemned by one Papal council after another. There’s encyclicals on it, which is, you know, to be anti-Semitic is to be un-Christian. And I’m not.

SAWYER (on videotape): Do you think Mel Gibson is an anti-Semite?

FOXMAN: No, I do not. No, I do not.

SAWYER: Do you believe this is an anti-Semitic movie?

FOXMAN: No, I do not believe it’s an anti-Semitic movie. I believe that this movie has the potential to fuel anti-Semitism, to reinforce it.

Of course, Foxman’s view doesn’t make it so. But to Wieseltier, someone who holds Foxman’s opinion “knows nothing, or chooses to know nothing, about the visual history of anti-Semitism, in art and in film.” That is just the sort of hyperbolic statement we have commented on all week. And yes, it was also odd to say that The Passion displays “contempt for the moral sensitivities of ordinary people” at the same time it was shattering box-office records. You don’t have to be a phony populist to see that’s an odd thing to say.

But no matter! According to our mailer, we didn’t write the things we did because major writers had made odd remarks. Instead, we wrote what we did because, for some reason, we had decided to “adopt a phony, O’Reilly-like populist stance.” As noted, the writer doesn’t have the first freaking clue about the topics on which he opines—but he’s able to tease out our own phony motives. But so it goes when irate adepts choose to march off to a war.

Is The Passion anti-Semitic? It didn’t really strike us that way, but many people (including Foxman) know much more about the subject than we do, and many people (including Foxman) have offered valuable instruction on the topic. We hope that such instruction continues. Many others, however, have engaged in the sorts of odd hyperbole we have critiqued for the past six years. We think this has been the most interesting debate in the press this week, and that is why we have discussed it.

Yes, we think odd things have been said. But on one key point, we can all agree—the film’s Aramaic is bad, very bad. Readers, there’s some bad Aramaic going around! Whatever you do, don’t be taken in by it! Luckily, many e-mailers won’t have to worry. As they lecture us about our vast folly, they assure us they won’t be seeing the film. Instead, they hand themselves over to Wieseltier’s judgment. He assures them that Foxman’s an idiot.

WHAT SIEGEL SENSED: One mailer complained that our judgment has been affected because we “liked” the film. Actually, we didn’t especially “like” The Passion, although we thought it was fairly interesting. On the other hand, it didn’t strike us as especially pornographic or anti-Semitic. (As noted, others know more about that last topic than we do.) Some major critics, though, did like the film. As we’ve noted, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper both fit in this category. So does ABC’s Joel Siegel, who opined on Good Morning America:

SIEGEL: Good morning. Answer to the questions quickly, it is not anti-Semitic, it is very violent, it is a very good movie…The characters speak Aramaic, Latin, some Hebrew, a Gibson device. And like the androgynous devil, a Gibson invention, it works very well. Speaking languages we can’t understand with an occasional word of Hebrew or Latin we can, pulls us into a drama. So does Maia Morgenstern’s moving portrayal of Mary and Caleb Deschanel’s, I use the word “miraculous,” cinematography. Caiphas, high priest of the Jews, has Jesus arrested, demands that Jesus be killed. A much more passive Pontius Pilate than the Gospels or history suggests washes his hands of the matter, literally. But I did not sense any anti-Semitism. It is Jews who show compassion, who bring water, who carry the cross, while Jesus is whipped, flayed, scorched and tortured by Romans. More than half the film is violent, violence unlike any I have ever seen. But from Mad Max to Lethal Weapon to Braveheart, Gibson excels at this kind of filmmaking, and this is the film he wanted to make. He wanted the violence—his words—“over the top.” He succeeds. I flinched, hid my eyes. Is the violence too vivid? Or is the story that powerful? Very powerful film. Also, very moving.
Siegel “liked” The Passion much more than we did. But he says he “did not sense any anti-Semitism” as he actually sat and watched it. That doesn’t mean that Siegel is right. But to us, it suggests that Wieseltier overstates when he says that only a simp could miss the film’s blatant anti-Semitism.