When Mel Gibson offered up his racist drunken rant a few months ago I took a different approach in my reaction. As someone who found Gibson's politics ridiculous (and disturbing) and his ego-driven films disturbing (and ridiculous), it would have been easy for me to pile on with scornful laughter at the whole situation. But I asked myself a question: what if it had been someone I liked? What if it was a celebrity I admired (or whose work I admired) that lost control and spewed hate? Would I be more open to forgiveness? Should I be more open to forgiveness?
I knew eventually it would happen, someone I liked more than Mel Gibson would say something horribly racist. I knew this because I like just about every actor/musician/celebrity more than Mel Gibson. I didn't have to wait too long for Michael Richards to give his now infamous rant. (If you've been busy lately, if you've been doing more important things like having babies, go here for the video.)
Having spent an unhealthy amount of time in my recent singlehood watching Seinfeld reruns on my cat-scratched couch flanked by cats, the artistry of the man who plays Kramer is fresh in my mind. The guy has talent. He's funny. He's seemingly smart. Years before Seinfeld I admired his work on the short-lived early 80s late-night alternative-to-SNL series Fridays. Since Seinfeld ended, I've rooted for him to get over his Kramer typecasting and for him to find true love (apparently he asked someone I know out on a date when she was assisting him in a retail establishment; she said "no" and at the time I thought she should have said "yes" because he's Kramer and he's got residuals and she had - at the time - no other prospects.)
I've watched the video of the incident and the resulting apology on the Letterman Show with Seinfeld and Letterman acting as oddly ineffectual (but attentive) parental figures. And I go back to my original question: What if it had been someone I liked? Well it was someone I liked and the whole thing is bizarre and sad. Part of me wants to believe it was one (not very good) stand-up comic attempting to be outrageous and edgy and his failure, likely fueled by other substances, led to a greater loss of control and deep-rooted rage (a subconscious rage that many people have - it may be targeted at individuals or groups or the world as a whole but it's there in a lot of us) came spewing out. Make no mistake, the rage isn't separate from the man. But the pain in his eyes on Monday night when the magnitude of his mistake and the difficulty in recovering from it was also real. It's easy to laugh at the guy and how he said "Afro Americans" during his apology but that's really no big deal. It was a common term in the seventies when he was a young man and it's an easy mistake when you're offering an unscripted, unassisted apology in front of millions of people, with the guy who controls your past and future livelihood (Seinfeld) sitting on a far more comfortable couch.
It sounds like I'm willing to accept an apology, for one man's really bad night. Is he a racist? Of course. He denies he is in the subsequent interview but racism is nothing but rage. And that was rage he was throwing out. Does he live his daily life like a racist? Probably not. Will he change for the better? I think so. Is this too much attention paid to a guy who we wouldn't be talking about if he hadn't been cast in a long-ago sitcom? No I don't think so. He was cast in that sitcom and he is famous (and admired by some) and he did go off on an incredibly racist (and well publicized) rant.
And yes all the questions and answers in the previous paragraph work equally well (in my mind at least) for Mel Gibson and Michael Richards (substituting "overrated apocalyptic sci-fi film" for "long-ago sitcom" in the case of Mel). When John Kerry offered up his bungled joke a week before the recent election, my knee jerk reaction was to believe his explanation and defend his right to say something relatively benign in the face of more outrageous comments coming from the other side. I reacted this way because I didn't want the Democrats to lose their chance of control of congress. But if was an entirely neutral observer (and I always try to become one, eventually), I would have realized that Kerry said something really stupid, that he probably meant it exactly the way it came out of his mouth, no matter how it was scripted, and that he wishes he never said it (being a Vietnam vet, however, gives him a little leeway.)
(on a related note - now that the Democrats won, does this mean Arianna Huffington can go back to being a Republican now?)
I'm often accused of taking positions opposite from everyone else to be different, to be a devil's advocate. But - and yeah my ego is talking a little here - it's not like that. It's easy to blindly root for your own "team" and condemn your "enemies" when it's convenient. It's more difficult to figure out each situation for what it is, digging for the truth that's just as deep-seated as the rage we don't want to see.