I really don’t want to spend the next day reading and talking about this. So let me say that I think a lot of readers who disagree with me make some excellent points and I’ve changed my thinking on some of this. Here’s where I come down and where I think I’ll be staying.
I think Gibson will have an image problem if he truly ends up pocketing as much money as some predict. Whether he should have an image problem is a different, though not irrelevant, point.
So should he?
Well, yes and no. As I said from the begining I don’t believe in the notion of “excess” or “obscene” profits as they are defined these days. If, for example, you go into business to make a drug that cures cancer and you end up saving 2 billion lives and making $200 billion dollars, great. You did what you set out to do, you helped the world, you succeeded, hooray for you, go spend your money on a solid gold AMC Pacer for all I care (though again: images proplems are inevitable). (This is not to say I think all businesses are morally equivalent, making baby forumal is different than making porn movies, even if both are legal).
But here’s the disconnect with the Gibson movie. Again, as I said, I take Gibson at his word that he didn’t go into this for the money. He went into this as an artist, a believer, a messenger. And the message of that movie is significant, isn’t it? Or has all of the praise on NRO and the condemnation elsewhere been for show? Ramesh and others even argued, rightly, in response to Gertrude Himmelfarb’s op-ed that the message is so special it is sui generis. Well, I think if Gibson made the movie as a true believer and artist, then the profit he makes from it should have some connection to the message as well.
Let me offer two illustrations as to why I think so.
First, imagine Oliver Stone made a movie about the poor in America. Imagine it was full of all of the controversy, deceit and moralizing we’ve come to expect from Stone. Now, imagine he made $400 million in profits from it and all he did is buy a few more mansions with it. If you can honestly say that conservatives wouldn’t have a point in criticizing Stone — even mildly — for that behavior, I salute your consistency.
Second illustration: Napster. For centuries artists have been monumental hypocrites. They claim they do art for art’s sake, that all they want to do is “raise awareness” and that they do it for free if they had to. And yet, for the most part they’ve always been eager to limit the public’s exposure to their work in order to maximize their profits. Why do sculptors break their molds if they want everyone to see their art? Rodin could have made thousands of copies of, say, the Burghers of Calais, but instead he made a handful and then broke the mold. This is a point I’ve made many times about the controversy over Napster. Acoustic guitar philosophers swear up and down they aren’t in it for the money. They say they’re in it for “the music” or “for their fans” and they often mock conventional business men for their “greed.” But, it turns out, the second the possibility that more of their fans could get more of their music, they freak out at the thought they might lose their royalty checks.
Now, I believe passionately in property rights and I think people deserve to reap the rewards of risk-taking as much as the next guy. But I also think there’s no shame in saying you want to make a profit in the first place. Artists do, or say they do. And when they get caught revealing themselves to be just as “greedy” as other businessmen, they should be called on it. (Imagine the hypocrisy if Oliver Stone opposed the free downloading of his poor-peoples movie by poor people).
Now, Mel Gibson made this movie, he says, as an artist, as a Christian, as a messenger. I believe him. As far as I know he didn’t say he was in it for the money. Therefore, I think he’s got an image problem. But people of good will can disagree.