Mel Gibson: racism isn’t even the half of it

It’s disturbing how easily Hollywood overlooks violence against women.

What an edifying week this has been for those of us who are female. I know it sometimes slips the mind of many, male and female alike, so let me take this opportunity to remind readers that females are more than half the human race. We're not a special-interest group, or a niche category.

But you wouldn't know it from the responses to a horrifying series of stories featuring violence against women that have dominated the news on both sides of the Atlantic over the past week. In ascending order of importance -- measured crudely in terms of numbers of victims and actual physical and psychological harm done -- let's begin with Mad Max. Mel Gibson has been dropped by his agents, and most of Hollywood, for his "racist rant".

It's good to know that Hollywood objects to racism. I trust that the rest of us do, too. What troubles me is that the racism, as disgusting as it was, was incidental to the purpose of Mel's alleged rant, but it's only the racism that anyone seems to care about.

The claim is that Gibson screamed at his then-girlfriend that the way she dressed meant that she deserved to be raped by a pack of "n----rs". The so-called "n-word" is so totemically powerful that no one will even print it, and its use has finally placed Gibson beyond the pale: his own agents issued a statement saying that no one in Hollywood would touch him with a 10-foot pole. Because of his racial attitudes.

But what about the (alleged) threats and assaults against his then girlfriend, Oksana Grigorieva, who claims that he broke two of her teeth, and attacked her while she was holding their baby? Those are mentioned in passing as "misogyny" or "domestic abuse". Objectionable, maybe, but not enough to end a Hollywood player's career.

Using a racist word is, on the evidence, a far greater social crime than a man physically assaulting his girlfriend, or telling her that she deserves to be gang-raped. How is this possible? Let's ask Roman Polanski.

If anyone is in doubt whether punching his girlfriend, or telling her she should be gang-banged, would have been sufficient to cause Gibson's downfall without the casual racism tossed in to underscore the threat, that person need only consider Hollywood's reaction to the US's attempt to extradite Polanski for a rape to which he has admitted. Polanski did indeed rape a 13-year-old girl, after drugging her, but has had a litany of excuses offered up by Hollywood stars -- far too many of whom are female (for shame, Tilda Swinton and Whoopi Goldberg) -- to excuse his conduct.

The most legally cogent of these, of course, is that he's an artist, which apparently gives him licence to sodomise children. Or maybe it's acceptable because it happened so long ago; in those days rape was probably fine, and if not, well, we've all forgotten about it by now.

Attitudes change, according to the novelist Robert Harris. Yes, of course, they do -- like racism, which used to be acceptable, and now it's not. Whereas raping girls used to be unacceptable, and now it is?

Alternatively, Polanski should be free because the victim wants to move on. Of course she does; that's why the state, and not individuals, prosecutes criminals, because it is supposed to be a question of impartial justice and the upholding of the rule of law. Polanski should be jailed to send the message that, as a society, we don't tolerate the drugging and sodomising of girls. Oh, except I forgot. Clearly we do. Especially if we're Switzerland, which cares so little about the rights of half its population that it didn't give them the right to vote until 1971.

Let me ask another rhetorical question while I'm at it. Does anyone think that if it had been a 13-year-old boy that Polanski had pleaded to guilty to raping, Hollywood would be defending the rape on the basis of passage of time? Rape doesn't have a statute of limitations for a reason: because it's one of the most serious crimes our culture recognises -- when it can be bothered to recognise it, that is.

Polanski told an interviewer that raping a girl was both negligible and admirable: "If I had killed somebody, it wouldn't have had so much appeal to the press, you see? But . . . fucking, you see . . . and the young girls. Judges want to fuck young girls. Juries want to fuck young girls. Everyone wants to fuck young girls!" The repentance is palpable, isn't it?

Anyone who thinks that Polanski's comparison of rape to murder was casual, or coincidental, should pause for a minute and consider the appalling reaction on the part of a terrifyingly large group of people to Raoul Moat's homicidal spree last week. A Facebook page called "RIP Raoul Moat You Legend" has nearly 30,000 people who have signed it and said they "like" it, as of the time of writing this.

When I logged on to the page, I found these representative messages, posted within the last few minutes:

R.I.P Raoul..!! I blame your ex..!! Little whore..!!"

and

If my mrs ever does to me what she did to Raoul i hope im brave enough to do a Moaty.

Thus a new expression enters the language: doing a Moaty, otherwise known as "bravely" attempting to murder women who have the unmitigated gall to try to end a relationship with someone who is, in fact, homicidal. How dare we?

All of these stories have a sickening common denominator: they are about men who think that it is permissible, even estimable, to attack women. And they are about the society that so concurs with this attitude that it doesn't even notice. Edifying, like I said.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta Books, £18.99).

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle