Clues and Illusions

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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Now that “The Passion of the Christ” has passed the $200 million mark and moved into blockbuster territory, it’s fair to step back and marvel at Mel Gibson’s mastery of the Hollywood art of spinning illusions.

There is, of course, his making of a monster hit out of a movie filmed entirely in dead languages. But that’s the least of it. Gibson has created, for millions of viewers, a movie that is more than a movie. It’s a devotional experience. It’s a cause.

He’s also created an imaginary world in which he is the victim of some conspiracy to suppress his religious expression. And despite his film’s boffo sales, despite its electric impact on Christian religious discourse, despite its domination of the national imagination for weeks, he has legions of admirers sharing his delusion of victimhood. As anger mounts, his film has become one of the most divisive cultural phenomena in recent years, splitting America into two camps snarling across an abyss of mutual incomprehension. And yet one illusion unites the sides: the certainty that we are living through a grand morality play in which one side is right and the other side terribly wrong.

Amid the swirling illusions, one of the more remarkable is the transformation of the Anti-Defamation League and its national director, Abraham Foxman, into the villains of the tale. Remarkable because this illusion has taken hold on both sides of the divide. Gibson’s defenders, unsurprisingly, blame Foxman for fomenting Jewish hostility toward a movie they insist is inoffensive. More surprisingly, many of Gibson’s critics, both Jewish and Christian, accuse the ADL of creating the confrontation and giving Gibson free publicity. Some of the language has, by any measure, crossed the bounds of decency. Foxman and the league have been called “dangerous” and worse, even accused of stirring up muck for fund-raising purposes.

For the record, the specter of Jewish-Christian confrontation was first raised not by the ADL, but by Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. In a January 2003 interview, O’Reilly asked Gibson if the film would “upset any Jewish people.” Gibson said it might, but he hoped not, adding darkly that the film had “a lot of enemies.”

It wasn’t until two months later, after the New York Times Magazine published an alarming portrait of Gibson and his views, that Foxman first sounded off — not in an attack but in a letter to Gibson asking to discuss the film. Gibson brushed him off and continued playing the victim card. In short order, everybody piled on.

Could Foxman — or Marvin Hier or Frank Rich — have played it differently? Perhaps, but it wouldn’t have changed things. Gibson made the movie he wanted and marketed it brilliantly. He built a constituency through targeted screenings. He cast himself as the victim of a conspiracy before anyone had said a word. Every attempt at dialogue became another opportunity for him to play victim.

It will be a long time before the lessons of this episode are absorbed. The Jewish community, once a powerless, persecuted minority, labored for a century to build a self-defense network that works by appealing to the public conscience. Along the way, we have come to be seen, not unfairly, as an influential group. It’s no longer so simple to win sympathy as vulnerable underdogs. More and more, it’s our opponents who claim the victim’s mantle. The rules have changed, and we’re clueless to respond. That’s what’s scary.

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