Tuesday, March 02, 2004


The One News article "Gibson's dad plays down Holocaust," after discussing Mel's father's well-documented Holocaust denial, says:
In a television interview with Diane Sawyer this week, Mel Gibson accused the Times of taking advantage of his father, and he warned Sawyer against broaching the subject again.

"He's my father. Gotta leave it alone Diane. Gotta leave it alone," Gibson said, while offering his own perspective on the Holocaust.

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

It then goes back to Gibson senior's bizarre views. Now here is that quote from Gibson junior in context:
DIANE SAWYER: Gibson's father, Hutton Gibson, age 85, who has written books and a newsletter with some decidedly provocative terms of phrase. He has called the Pope "Garrulous Karolus, the Koran kisser". And in that New York Times magazine interview, he seemed to be questioning the scope of the holocaust, sceptical that six million Jews had died. What does Gibson think?

MEL GIBSON: 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.

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


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

MEL 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.

DIANE SAWYER: And you will not speak publicly about him beyond that.

MEL GIBSON: I am tight with him. He's my father. Got to leave it alone, Diane. Got to leave it alone.

The key exchange (which I have put in bold font), in which Gibson affirms unambiguously that six million Jews died in the Holocaust is omitted. The most generous interpretation of this I can come up with is that someone was culpably careless: this is an important issue and it is very misleading to leave out the part of the exchange where Gibson removes all doubt regarding his position.

Now look at the harm such distortions can do. In his National Review Online blog, David Frum writes:
On the other hand, I have to say I was very disturbed by something Gibson said in his interview with Peggy Noonan in Reader's Digest.

Gibson's father is of course a notorious Holocaust denier and trafficker in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Noonan offered Mel Gibson an opportunity to separate himself from his father's views. Here is Gibson's reply:

"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."

Sounds unambiguous, right? Now listen again. Note that Gibson did not say, "Don't be absurd, Peggy. Obviously it is a matter of historical record that Adolph Hitler and the Nazis deliberately murdered millions of Jews." Note that Gibson did not cite the universally accepted casualty count of between 5 and 6 million Jewish fatalities. Nor did he acknowledge that Jews were special targets of Hitler's hatred or that anti-Semitism occupied a central place in Hitler's ideology.

Note next that Gibson did not use the word "murder." Instead, he used the generic term "atrocities," which could cover anything from mass murder to assault and arson. And whatever was the point of that strange formulation, "Some of them were Jews..."?

Notice finally how Gibson goes on to speak of Stalin's massacres. Gibson speaks of Stalin's crimes in plain, direct language. For them, he invokes commonly accepted casualty counts. What prevented him from speaking that way of the Jewish Holocaust?

Gibson used equally stilted language when asked a similar question by Diane Sawyer on ABC: "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." Here again, Gibson seems to bypass the issues of (1) the numbers killed; (2) whether those people were deliberately murdered; and (3) whether that murder proceeded from Nazi ideology.

I am not parsing these words so closely to be pedantic. The trouble is that Gibson's words, whether carefully considered or not, bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to those deployed by genuine Holocaust deniers.

Frum's source of information is the selective quote from One News (follow the link and see). Moreover, Andrew Sullivan perpertuated the distortion yesterday when he quoted Frum's column with approval:
NOTICING EVIL: David Frum parses Mel Gibson's verbal non-committal on whether the Holocaust really took place as we know it did.

Now it was reasonable to be concerned by Gibson's comments to Noonan. As you can see with the above internal link, I thought the same thing when I first encountered comments on what he said. But I corrected myself promptly (the evening of the same day) when the Sawyer interview was drawn to my attention. I did check the actual Noonan interview as far as it was published, but in retrospect I should have run a "mel gibson holocaust" search on Google in the first place, which probably would have alerted me to the Sawyer interview.

But what One News has done is taken the Sawyer interview and selectively quoted it so that it now gives the impression that Gibson was waffling on the scale of the Holocaust when the full context makes it clear that he was not. As I said, the most positive face that can be put on this is that it was slipshod reporting. They could easily have summarized what he said in such a way to make clear that he accepted that six million Jews died in concentration camps under the Nazi regime. They could also easily have made clear that "the subject" that Gibson warns Sawyer to leave alone is Gibson's father rather than the Holocaust itself. Is this another Mel Gibson Dowdification? I'm not sure. I'll leave it for you to decide.

Frum and Sullivan were careless too: they should have checked the actual interview before posting. I trust that both will post corrections promptly. (I've e-mailed them both.)

I don't like what I hear about the movie and it's only a sense of professional obligation that makes me plan to see it at all, but the Mel-Gibson-as-Holocaust-denier meme is false, yet it seems to be spreading. (I even helped spread it for a few hours.) It needs to be stamped out.

Also, Frum quotes with approval a very strange essay by David Warren, which includes the following:
"It was, historically, Pontius Pilate, a rather gutless Roman administrator, of some personal charm, who passed sentence and then washed his hands of the sentence he had passed. He could believe a man innocent yet send him to torture for reasons of state, which included his own personal convenience. In the proto-modernism of the ancient world, it is Pilate who asks with such droll urbanity, 'What is truth?'

I'm not going to get bogged down in critiquing this piece; I'll just stick to the issue of historical veracity. We know enough about Pilate to know he was nothing like this. I quote senior Qumran scholar Geza Vermes in a recent Telegraph article:
About Pilate a great deal is known. All the first-century sources other than the Gospels depict him as a harsh, insensitive and cruel figure, guilty of bribery, and responsible for numerous executions without trial. He was dismissed and banished by the emperor Tiberius. The portrait in the New Testament of a vacillating weakling, troubled by his conscience but eventually yielding to the bloodthirsty Jewish mob, is quite at odds with what we know of the real Pilate.

Vermes's article has been discussed on PaleoJudaica and he has nuanced it further in this comment, but none of the specialists who have commented on it disagree with his characterization of Pilate. (This includes Dr. Helen Bond, who has published a book on Pilate.) Frum gets bad marks for approving erroneous history when he could have checked up on it first.

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