December 22, 2006

“Apocalypto” Enrages Leftist Elites

Mel Gibson’s epic about those fun-loving ancient Mayans and their fondness for human sacrifices has provoked cries of “racism” and “cultural insensitivity.”

By David Paulin

Filmmaker Mel Gibson has touched off a controversy with his violent epic, “Apocalypto,” but it has nothing to do with long-standing charges that he’s anti-Semitic. Members of the high-minded left are accusing Gibson of “racism” and “cultural insensitivity” for his allegedly unfair portrayal of ancient Mayan civilization. Much of “Apocalypto” revolves around the Mayan's charming predilection for internecine violence and human sacrifices.

Interestingly, some of “Apocalypto’s” harshest critics have offered few substantive complaints about the accuracy of the film’s gruesome scenes. What’s made them positively livid is that Gibson has violated a taboo that’s central to multiculturalism – the prohibition against criticizing other cultures, especially Third World and primitive cultures. This prohibition is especially applicable to Westerners – and to middle-aged white guys (like Gibson) in particular. Of course, there’s one exception to this no-criticism rule: You can vilify Western culture to no end.

"Culturally Insensitive’

Violating this no-criticism taboo is serious stuff in the minds of dedicated multiculturalists. Consider the toxic effect that “Apocalypto” had on Maya groupie Julia Guernsey, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas in Austin.

Guernsey saw “Apocalypto” earlier this month and was so outraged that she complained of an elevated heart rate right after the show. She went to “Apocalypto” with a movie reviewer from the Austin-American Statesman, Chris Garcia, who also hated the film and said as much in his review.

Garcia definitely had a good idea in inviting the professor to the local premiere. Right beside his review, he published a Q & A piece with Guernsey, "Apocalypto Is An Insult to Maya Culture, One Expert Says," which made for entertaining reading. The interview was done after the show.

“As we stagger out of a sneak peek of Mel Gibson's Maya historical thriller 'Apocalypto,' Julia Guernsey is visibly shaken,” Garcia wrote. He added, “I’m a little worried.” Talking herself into a frenzy as she unloaded on “Apocalypto,” Guernsey declared: “I can feel my heart beating faster talking about this!”

She went on, “I hate it. I despise it. I think it's despicable. It’s offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st-century Western ones but are nonetheless valid.” (Emphasis added).

Defending her beloved ancient Maya as a “very sophisticated culture,” Guernsey accused Gibson of one of the worst sins possible in the politically correct world – committing “really offensive racial stereotyping.” Gibson, she sniffed, also gave short shrift to the Mayans considerable accomplishments. They included sophisticated advances in astronomy, language, mathematics, and urban planning.

Gibson directed the film and co-wrote it with Farhad Safina. It has generally gotten positive reviews and generated strong ticket sales. The multicultural left, however, has gone frothing mad over “Apocalypto,” which focuses on Mayan civilization in the period before the Spanish conquest. Its criticisms are revealing.

Curiously, Guernsey admitted that “Apocalypto’s” scenes of bloody sacrifices got more things right than wrong. “We have evidence to suggest that there were group sacrifices. But it would probably have been done as a pious act with solemnity,” she said. (Emphasis added.)

Got that? The butchery was done with much piety and solemnity. I wonder what the sacrificial victims had to say. Would Guernsey also evoke the mantra of “cultural sensitivity” to excuse cultural practices unique to the Muslim world – “honor killings” and “female circumcisions”?

If morally neutral professors can excuse bloody human sacrifices, where might such thinking take future academics? A few hundred years from now, will professors like Guernsey look back on Germany’s Third Reich and be so awed by its engineering marvels, martial expertise, and social unity that they’ll overlook the evil zeal with which its leaders sent six million Jews to the gas chambers?

This is not to say, to be sure, that the Mayans were Nazis, but consider some parallels. The Mayans carried out human sacrifices to appease their Gods – a perfectly logical reason for their bloodlust, when viewed from a morally neutral perspective. As for the Nazis, they undertook the Final Solution for logical reasons of their own – namely, to protect the Fatherland and its heroic values from the pernicious influence of Jewish intellectual and genetic degradation. Who are we to judge them? Obviously, cultural and moral relativism can lead to some pretty absurd extremes.

Garcia, for his part, also favors looking at the Mayans from a morally neutral perspective. The important thing for him is to understand the Mayan's point of view. To make this point, his review criticized one scene in which Gibson contemptuously “sums up all of Maya evil.” This was where “terrified sacrificial victims are lined up to have their hearts cut from their chests by a distinctly satanic priest garbed in feathers and paint and human bones, with claw-like fingernails and wild eyes,” he wrote.

Incredibly, Garcia then attempted to legitimize such conduct with a paragraph that provides an astounding example of moral confusion: “It would be nice to get some context for the violence, but Gibson refuses to illuminate the cultural and religious forces behind the ritualized murder, the better to paint these people as barbaric monsters.” (Emphasis added.)

Incidentally, the title of Garcia’s review in one of the Statesman’s editions was revealing: “BARBAROUS/Rather than Maya achievements, 'Apocalypto' lingers on sacrificial slaughter.”

What kind of headline might Garcia come up with for a movie that was blatantly anti-American? Here’s one that I bet you’ll never see: “Rather than Focus on America’s Decency and Achievements, Its Critics Focus Upon Its Mistakes and Past Sins.”

Wounded Ethnic Pride

Another dimension of leftist outage over “Apocalypto” concerns Hispanic-Americans who feel the film has assaulted their “ethnic” pride. Roberto Lovato wrote in New America Media that “Apocalypto” left him “pondering the history of racism, pillage and apocalyptic war through my own blood and family history.

“Like many Central Americans born and categorized as mestizos (mixed Indian and Spanish blood), I watched Apocalypto as someone who consciously revered the Maya and other indigenous groups while subconsciously prohibiting himself any real identification with them,” he explained.

How interesting that “Apocalypto” has engendered such feelings among some Americans of Hispanic descent. Why should they feel that way? It’s no doubt because they see themselves as Hispanic-Americans, and in this hyphenated identity they see themselves as more Hispanic than American.

A generation ago, such identify problems were rare. My family members who came through Ellis Island reinvented themselves as Americans. Our family name was Anglicized: Good riddance, Europe! Unfortunately, nobody these days says “Good riddance, Mexico!”

Precisely what put Mayan civilization into decline in southern Mexico and Central America is open to debate. But one theory argues that it contained the seeds of its own destruction. In the film’s opening scene, Gibson suggests this by citing a quote from historian and philosopher William James Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Obviously, different people will see different messages in “Apocalypto.” Speaking at a film festival the ever controversial Gibson even drew some kooky parallels between the decline of Mayan civilization and America.

“Apocalypto,” on the other hand, also may reinforce the notion that not all cultures are equal, that America and the West are indeed the good guys – regardless of what the Maya-loving left may say. They demand “cultural sensitivity” of everyone except those who criticize America and Western culture.

After Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic rant, I had little interest in seeing another of his pictures, especially after seeing “The Passion of Christ,” whose non-stop focus on Christ's torture had the feel of pornography. But given the kinds of people who hate “Apocalypto,” this is a picture I’m definitely going to see. It may just be a good antidote for these morally confused times.


Anonymous said...

white people who specialize in talking about Latinos are thing of the past. why don't you blog about whiteness and its decreasing currency, instead of talking about things about which you truly have nothing of value to offer. And let's not even talk about the neoconservative crap.

John Lobenstein USA said...

Typical of people that hate exposure of the truth about some ancient distant aspect of their CLAIMED ancestory. They use anonymity as their figurative human shield(s). I do not know of any historical society that did not include some form of citizen on citizen violence. To claim that these pure, sweet, loving, tolerant Mayans did not is revisionary racism.

Is anonymous as ready to condem the Mestizos's gross misreprentation of the history of the North American continent to justify their massive illegality and crime in the United States?

David Paulin said...

It’s sad that you view the world through a racial and ethnic prism. That’s not how most Americans think. Your suggestion for a future article is in fact something that I probably will end up writing – though, as you might expect, I will be coming to different conclusions than I imagine you would embrace.

David Paulin said...

I agree that anonymous messages like this don’t deserve a lot of respect. Unfortunately, I think a lot of people these days think along these lines. As I tried to point out: Lots of immigrants who came to this country from Europe came from some pretty awful places. They put it all behind them and reinvented themselves as Americans. I grew up not even liking to talk about my “ethnicity.” It was irrelevant. I was an American. Unfortunately, that’s not the fashion anymore. People like the “anonymous” letter writer are among those who have been unable to make this transition. Incidentally, Samuel Huntington has a good book, “Who We Are,” that discusses some of these issues.

ali affaf said...

It appears that mr. paulin is practising the art of western hipocracy once again. Mel gibson failed to address or portray any positive aspects of the wonderful mayan culture. It is well documented that the mayans were as advanced or more than the egyptians when is came to Science, Astrononmy, agriculture cultivation and the development of a calender. Gibson, whom paulin defends, only portrayed the negative of this culture. Perhaps in a few hundred years from now some film maker will make a movie depicting the united states illegal war of aggression against iraq and not mention any of the postive aspects the USA has brought the world.

John Lobenstien USA said...

Ali - You appear to be evaluating Apocalypto as a doucumanetary of Mayan culture. No where in any other discussion I have read or heard was it ever represented to 'document' all of Mayan culture. Since it was not intended to be documentry of Mayan culture why would it include the scientific aspects of Mayan culture. Our domestic 'westerns' do not give America due credit for its great scientific contributions. Does that make them hypocritical?

Richard Landes said...

interesting post, interesting comments. i find the immense emotional pain about a culture that self destructed over a millennium ago quite touching. i don't recall these multi-culturalists getting upset over gibson's revolting and inaccurate presentation of judaism, but for a (not so inaccurate portrayal of a) culture of human sacrifice and massacre, they get choked up.

what's up here? what mobilizes all this energy and passion in such self-contradictory ways. is it that the jews are defending themselves and the mayans can't? or is it human rights complex, in which people of color can't be wrong and honkeys can't be right?


what a fascinating

David Paulin said...

I’ve pondered these same odd and troubling issues. One interesting aspect you find here is that Israel was not being trashed a few decades ago in the way it is now. And nor was anti-Semitism as common or virulent as it is today, either in the U.S. or Europe. Clearly, something has happened to change that; and clearly it goes well beyond what Israel “does.” It instead concerns what Israel “is.” What’s happened? My sense is that it instead has to do with what you might call the “post-modern” left and its influence, which is embodied in the morally confused comments from the highly educated people quoted in this post.

Several months ago, incidentally, I wrote a two-part article for the Seraphic Secret blog, “Presbyterian Seminaries: Schools for Anti-Semitism?” I came across some interesting statistics: High-minded “human rights” activists spent far more of their energies criticizing Israel than they did the world’s most appalling human rights abusers. Was this all about anti-Semitism? No, I don’t think so. The reason is that these same folks ALSO vilified America about as much as Israel. Much of the criticism of America had nothing to do with its support of Israel, incidentally.

All in all, this criticism seemed to be wrapped up in anti-Western loathing – or self-loathing. Again, America and Israel together were criticized far more often, and with more vehemence, than the most odious rights abusers. This is not to say that anti-Semitism is not apart of this, but it seems to go beyond anti-Semitism because of its anti-Western tone.

You find manifestations of this in some odd and seemingly innocuous settings. During the recent Kwanzaa week in Austin, for instance, the public library hosted for the second straight year “an African native and educator” who spoke on “African values.” (And when I say “African values,” I mean it in the most idyllic sense.)

What was most dumbfounding about these “African values” lectures is that, over the past few years, the New York Times has regularly reported on African values that I’m sure were not discussed – from female circumcisions to child abuse; you name it. These things have nothing to do with colonialism; they are part of the culture.

Incidentally, can you imagine a proud and outspoken American speaking on “American values” in another country? I wonder how long the visa lines are at the U.S. Embassies throughout Africa.

I won’t even bother to mention what happened when I complained to some library officials last year about how my tax dollars were being spent.

What’s also puzzling is the extent to which highly educated academics are at the center of these trends. More than once, it has occurred to me that respected academics (including philosophers I studied in college) were enablers of the Third Reich. Along these lines, I remember a philosophy professor once commenting in an ethics class: “Studying ethics won’t necessarily make you more ethical.” (I don’t recall for sure if he said “necessarily.”)

On another front, let me say how fascinating I found your coverage of the “Al Durah” trial. It’s always a pleasure to have you drop a comment here. Thanks for writing.

David Paulin said...

The space here is limited. So let’s put aside issues of “Western hypocrisy,” the war in Iraq, and the accuracy of Mil Gibson’s film. Let’s instead zero in on the main point of the article – namely, the eagerness with which members of the post-modern left easily excuse or overlook reprehensible and uncivilized conduct in Third World and primitive cultures. And what’s my definition of reprehensible and uncivilized? It would be conduct or practices to which none of us – or any rational human being – would want to be subjected.

Certainly, ancient Mayan civilization can boast of many accomplishments. But group sacrifices of human beings constituted a significant part of that culture. Accordingly, anybody studying Mayan civilization ought to look at this civilization with just a little bit of circumspectness -- yet there appears to be no circumspectness coming from the people quoted in this article. Instead, ancient Mayan civilization is idealized and issues of group sacrifices are cheerfully explained away. Some scholars even claim that sacrificial victims were “honored” to be sacrificed.

This morally neutral world view also animates how members of the post-modern left are reluctant or unwilling to criticize barbaric practices that exist today in some cultures. No matter, incidentally, that these practices not only violate our “Western” notions of civilized behavior. They violate the principles and accords that are enshrined in that august body, the United Nations.

All in all, there is something very odd going on here. And the issue, as I say, has less to do with Gibson film’s than with what’s being said by those who despise the film.

David Paulin said...

On Jan. 14, 2007, I determined that an Internet troll has posted numerous negative comments at The Big Carnival. The troll has posted under phony and anonymous names. The comment here from "Ali Affaf" is one such post. I identified the troll as Peter Johnson. He lives in the Chicago area. He's a forty-something corporate pilot and flies for NetJets, the Ohio-based fractional jet firm. "Albert Deans" is one of the names he used at the ModernConservative website, where I am a frequent contributor. There, in his "Albert Deans" persona, Johnson identified himself as a "retired FBI agent" to lend weight to his argument. I held one of his reader's comments here because of its vulgar nature. Johnson is banned from posting on this website.