Anti-Semite or Scold?


Here's what every writer lives for. A lukewarm, semi-endorsement by your editor in a major newspaper.

"What Gregg wrote was a mistake, and I think he regrets it. And I don't think he's an anti-Semite."

You think he regrets it? You think (but don't know for sure) he's not an anti-semite? That's from a New York Daily News piece in which New Republic editor Peter Beinart defends (if that's that right word for it) staff blogger Gregg Easterbrook for a bizarre piece Easterbrook wrote October 13 on his TNR-sanctioned Easterblogg.

Ostensibly an attack on what a fake, phony, and horrible artist Quentin Tarantino is (and what a piece of junk Kill Bill is), Easterbrook veered off on the sort of ethnographic non sequitur usually only ascribed to conservative folks such as Rush Limbaugh:

Corporate sidelight: Kill Bill is distributed by Miramax, a Disney studio. Disney seeks profit by wallowing in gore–Kill Bill opens with an entire family being graphically slaughtered for the personal amusement of the killers–and by depicting violence and murder as pleasurable sport. Disney's Miramax has been behind a significant share of Hollywood's recent violence-glorifying junk, including Scream, whose thesis was that murdering your friends and teachers is a fun way for high-school kids to get back at anyone who teases them. Scream was the favorite movie of the Columbine killers.

Set aside what it says about Hollywood that today even Disney thinks what the public needs is ever-more-graphic depictions of killing the innocent as cool amusement. Disney's CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else, promoting for profit the adulation of violence. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else, by promoting for profit the adulation of violence? Recent European history alone ought to cause Jewish executives to experience second thoughts about glorifying the killing of the helpless as a fun lifestyle choice. But history is hardly the only concern. Films made in Hollywood are now shown all over the world, to audiences that may not understand the dialogue or even look at the subtitles, but can't possibly miss the message–now Disney's message–that hearing the screams of the innocent is a really fun way to express yourself.

Easterbrook has posted an Arnoldian non-apology apology today, in which he notes that he's ready to "defend all the thoughts in that paragraph," while rhetorically asking, "How could I have done such a poor job of expressing them?" (Grammatical sidelight: Don't you just hate rhetorical questions?).

His apology isn't that well-crafted either, especially the point where he says that, "Nothing about Eisner or Weinstein causes any movie to be bad or awful; they're just supervisors"–a weird inversion of the "I was only following orders" defense that proved so popular among Germans after World War II.

Regardless of whether Easterbrook harbors some unseemly, deep-seated animosity toward schlockmeisters of a particular creed, this much seems certain: He is the sort of moral scold who harbors deep rage at many aspects of the contemporary world. He is perhaps best known lately for attacking SUVs owners not simply as hopelessly misguided consumers but as sociopathic hoodlums. What's more, his critique of SUVs builds in an attack on the lower orders. Sounding like an aristocratic lord worried about upwardly mobile masses who are dressing above their stations, he says the true horror of SUVs will be visited upon us when the behemoth cruisers fall into the hands of "immigrants, the lower middle class, and the poor, who generally speed, run lights, drive drunk, and crash more often than the prosperous classes." Such fears belie a certain type of road rage, all right, but not the sort that comes from congested traffic.

Something similar is at work with his critique of violent movies, the topic that put Easterbrook in his current situation. Take his (mis)characterization of Scream, for instance. Only unbalanced types such as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold–and scolds who have no appreciation for or understanding of how audiences process fictional texts such as novels, movies, and music–would walk away from that movie believing its thesis "was that murdering your friends and teachers is a fun way for high-school kids to get back at anyone who teases them." Nut jobs don't need movies to make them kill–anymore than Mark David Chapman needed The Catcher in the Rye to shoot John Lennon. They use whatever is at hand–including, at times, the Bible–to justify their actions. To suggest otherwise is to turn popular culture into a whipping boy that masks other sorts of class and status concerns and anxieties, as cultural critic Jib Fowles pointed out in Reason.

Scream was popular–and fun–because it played with any number of known screen conventions that gave viewers pleasure (and shocks). I've argued elsewhere that Disney's ownership of Miramax is a healthy sign of cultural proliferation and the inability of any single source to dominate cultural production (recall the earlier Miramax movies that outraged folks: Kids, Priest, Pulp Fiction, etc). More important, as Gerard Jones has argued persuasively, fantasy violence often serves a healthy function. And folks such as Easterbrook who attribute bad behavior to bad taste (by their lights) in books, movies, and music are wilfully ignorant about how audiences actually consume culture.