Earlier this week, Gregg Easterbrook, a senior editor at the New Republic, ignited a blistering controversy when he criticized those responsible for the release of Quentin Tarantino’s violent hit film, “Kill Bill Vol. 1,” singling out Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner, who were described as “Jewish executives” who “worship money above all else.”
Easterbrook’s comments were distasteful and disturbing in their own right. But the affair also is notable because his charges appeared in the unedited blog he writes for the New Republic’s online edition, and most of the reaction to them has appeared on similar sites of other prominent Internet commentators, including the novelist and screenwriter Roger L. Simon, whose blog is widely read in Hollywood.
Moreover, in an apology posted in the New Republic Online Thursday and in an interview Friday, Easterbrook attributed the furor, at least in part, to the peculiar perils of blogging, a relatively new form of personal journalism that has captured the imagination of many involved in the coverage of politics and culture. “I stand by my original thoughts, which are important and true, but the language I used to express them was careless and bad,” the veteran magazine writer said in the interview. “It was crummy work on my part.”
In his apology, he described himself as guilty of “mangling words” and speculated that “maybe this is an object lesson in the new blog reality. I worked on this alone ... and posted the piece. Twenty minutes after I pressed ‘send,’ the entire world had read it. When I reread my own words and beheld how I’d written words that could be misunderstood, I felt awful.”
Easterbrook, a Presbyterian, is one of the rare Washington-based journalists who has written explicitly about the importance of religious belief in his life. His initial essay was a forthright attack on the brutality of Tarantino’s film, which pays homage to Asian martial arts films in an elaborate -- and bloody -- revenge fantasy. Disney is the parent company of Miramax, which released the film, and Easterbrook extended his criticism to executives at the head of both companies. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
These days, that is about as clear an example of objective anti-Semitism as one is likely to encounter in polite rhetorical society. Over the next 48 hours, the Web’s equivalent of the roof fell in on Easterbrook. Simon -- who shared an Oscar nomination for his adaptation of Isaac Singer’s “Enemies, a Love Story” -- fiercely denounced the remarks and, shortly, had posted more than 100 responses, mostly from readers from within the film industry.
Disney and Miramax issued a statement saying, “It is sad that these terrible stereotypes persist and that these comments are receiving a wider platform.”
Easterbrook’s friend and New Republic colleague, Leon Wieseltier -- the magazine’s longtime literary editor -- agreed that “insofar as Gregg’s comments impute Jewish motives for everything that Jews do, insofar as they suggest that everything any Jew does is intrinsically a Jewish thing, they are objectively anti-Semitic. But Gregg Easterbrook is not an anti-Semite and the suggestion that the New Republic is in any way receptive to anti-Semitism is the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard since the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Gregg typed his way into a wildly offensive formulation, into classic anti-Semitic code.”
Part of that, said Wieseltier, can be attributed “to the hubris of this whole blogging enterprise. There is no such thing as instant thought, which is why reflection and editing are part of serious writing and thinking, as Gregg has now discovered.”
Simon was less charitable. “You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to believe that Web logs are to some extent a function of the id,” he wrote in an e-mail. “They come out so fast and so unedited they often express our feelings more accurately and even deeply than more carefully wrought writing. This is their blessing and their curse.”
Friday, Easterbrook said that “as the reaction to my piece came in, I thought that I might react with a ringing defense of free speech and a defense of my ideas about film violence, which I stand by. But after further thought, I realized that there are two kinds of offense that writers can give to readers: One is deliberate, because you want to force them to think about a difficult or unpopular idea. You might call that ‘positive offense.’ Then there’s ‘negative offense,’ where you use the wrong words and prevent readers from understanding what you’re trying to say. What I’m mainly guilty of is creating that negative offense.... Part of my failing conceptually was not realizing that words having to do with Jewish identity have a triggering effect based on thousands of years of history. There is no counterpart in the Christian context.”
Easterbrook’s case is not helped by other aspects of his apology. In one, he recounts how he joined a particular Presbyterian congregation specifically because it shares facilities and finances with a synagogue. Experienced readers will find it a bit like the old “some of my best friends are ... " argument.
Worse, in his apology and in an interview with the New York Times Thursday, Easterbrook pointed to a column he wrote last week, assailing Mel Gibson for a history of violent filmmaking while defending his controversial re-creation of the Passion. “I raised the exact same question about a Christian,” Easterbrook said Thursday, and “there was not a single peep.”
In that same essay, however, he attacked Catholic biblical scholars who have criticized Gibson’s script as anti-Semitic, as well as the Anti-Defamation League, which has expressed similar reservations. “The ADL has a financial interest in accusing Gibson of anti-Semitism,” he wrote, “as the organization raises money using this charge ... how better to get publicity and pry open checkbooks.”
Friday, the writer said that neither those remarks nor those to the New York Times were meant “to suggest a conspiracy or anything like that. I was simply making a statement of fact.”
What we have here -- to gloss a phrase from the Gospels -- is old wine of a particularly bitter vintage in glitzy new skins. The wine comes from a vineyard whose roots should have been yanked out and burned long ago. The fact that it hasn’t been and that its fruit so readily finds a home in the brave new cyberspatial world ought to sober everyone involved.