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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Mel Gibson is out of control - and we just love to watch him Add to ...

Listening in on the Mel Gibson tapes is like bathing in a sewer. The latest tape, released Tuesday, is the same as all the ones before. Mel spews venom at his former girlfriend as she calmly lets him hang himself. Mel is shrieking, panting, hoarse with rage. He sounds as if he'd kill her if he got the chance. He sounds totally deranged.

Right on cue, the great American morality machine snaps into gear. The former star of Braveheart is being denounced as a misogynist, a homophobe, a classic wife-battering type, an anti-Semite and a racist, all of which ring true. Not that we didn't already know he was an obnoxious jerk. Four years ago, when he was stopped for drunk driving, he cursed out the arresting officer and Jews, adding: "The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world."

You can add "clueless" to that list. The beauteous Oksana Grigorieva, the Russian model from whom Mr. Gibson is estranged, taped 30 minutes of his abusive phone rants, which are now being leaked ( quelle surprise!) in dribs and drabs on a celebrity Internet website. (We don't know for sure whether it's his voice on the tapes, but he hasn't denied it.) The two are locked in combat over custody of their infant daughter. Oksana reportedly wanted Mel to hand over $15-million for the tapes, but negotiations broke down.

You may think this is just another tawdry celebrity meltdown that helps fill airtime now that the oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico has been capped. But no. According to several highbrow pundits, Mel's rancid rants are a profound reflection of this moment in our culture. The meaning of this moment depends on which highbrow you prefer. New York Times columnist David Brooks (a moderate conservative highbrow) thinks Mel embodies our culture of narcissism and abandonment of personal restraint. "We've entered an era where self-branding is on the ascent and the culture of self-effacement is on the decline," he wrote, as if Mel were just another ordinary abusive jerk and not an incredibly successful movie star who's worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But New York Times columnist Frank Rich (a flame-throwing liberal highbrow) has a different take. To him, the final self-immolation of Mel Gibson is the last gasp of the values war that consumed America during the Bush years. Why? Because he once made a rather eccentric movie called The Passion of the Christ, which was a hit on the Christian evangelical circuit.

In fact, Mr. Gibson's movie - the only blockbuster filmed in Aramaic - is less notable for its evil Jews than for its extensive scenes of flogging and torture, filmed in gag-inducing close-up. Mr. Rich has repeatedly denounced this sadomasochistic epic as nakedly anti-Semitic, and Mr. Gibson, in turn, has demanded Mr. Rich's "intestines on a stick." Despite Mr. Rich's warnings that the movie would incite an anti-Jewish backlash in the heartland, it didn't.

Why should we be surprised when rich celebrities turn out to be twisted narcissists with weird beliefs? In my view, it's amazing that any of them are normal. They spend their lives enabled by friends, followers and sycophants who tell them they can do no wrong. Ordinary people get constant reality checks from life. Not people like Mel Gibson. Nothing stands between them and their worst impulses. It's just that, before the days of non-stop celebrity journalism, cellphones, texting, TMZ.com and Radar.com, no one knew how screwed up they were.

Is Mel's career truly over? A lot of people think so. His agency has dumped him, and hardly anyone is sticking up for him, apart from his old friend Whoopi Goldberg. (She has a soft spot for Roman Polanski, too.) But the truth is, it's only over until he can make money for someone again. Mel is just a rich and famous jerk who's out of control, and we just love to watch him.

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