Gary Oldman, Political Correctness, and the “Internet Outrage Machine”

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Let’s take a pop quiz. Please select the stupidest human being from the following three choices:

a) a famous actor who, when pulled over while intoxicated, goes off on a bizarre rant about Jewish people.

b) a famous actor who, when harassed by paparazzi, spews a homophobic slur.

c) a famous actor who, in the calm of an interview situation, looks into the eyes of a journalist, points his mouth in the direction of a tape recorder, and defends actors a) and b) as victims of “political correctness” and a culture where “no one can take a joke anymore.”

Pencils down! If you picked C, congratulations — you’re the winner of an HTC One M8, the smartphone that will presumably pull its latest ad campaign any moment now, seeing as it stars Mr. Gary Oldman, whose new Playboy interview is just about the daftest celebrity one-on-one since Charlie Sheen told us all about tiger blood.

The interview’s opening passages are fairly innocuous: he talks about his career (on appearing in the Dark Knight and Harry Potter films: “It was work”), his perfectionism (“Most of my work I would just stomp into the ground and start over again”), and his new film (which he’s ostensibly doing the interview to promote, oopsie), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. A discussion of that film’s bleak worldview leads to the question, “What’s your view of the future?” And after a pause, the actor responds, “You’re asking Gary?”

Are we ever! Because it turns out, “Gary” is a Gibson-and-Baldwin-defending, PC-defying, “Jews-run-Hollywood”-spouting, 12 Years a Slave-hating, crusader against “fucking hypocrites.” Here’s “Gary” on Mel Gibson:

I just think political correctness is crap. That’s what I think about it. I think it’s like, take a fucking joke. Get over it… No one can take a joke anymore. I don’t know about Mel. He got drunk and said a few things, but we’ve all said those things. We’re all fucking hypocrites. That’s what I think about it. The policeman who arrested him has never used the word nigger or that fucking Jew? I’m being brutally honest here. It’s the hypocrisy of it that drives me crazy… Mel Gibson is in a town that’s run by Jews and he said the wrong thing because he’s actually bitten the hand that I guess has fed him — and doesn’t need to feed him anymore because he’s got enough dough. He’s like an outcast, a leper, you know? But some Jewish guy in his office somewhere hasn’t turned and said, “That fucking kraut” or “Fuck those Germans,” whatever it is?

Yeah, we’ve all said those things, am I right? C’mon, everybody says that stuff. And besides, what do Jewish people have against Germans, anyway?

On Alec Baldwin:

Alec calling someone an F-A-G in the street while he’s pissed off coming out of his building because they won’t leave him alone. I don’t blame him. So they persecute.

Yeah, how dare they persecute a guy whose go-to response, anytime someone harasses him, is a gay slur? Can’t a straight, white guy just say whatever the fuck he wants, at any time, without any repercussions? Apparently not:

Well, if I called Nancy Pelosi a cunt — and I’ll go one better, a fucking useless cunt — I can’t really say that. But Bill Maher and Jon Stewart can, and nobody’s going to stop them from working because of it. Bill Maher could call someone a fag and get away with it. He said to Seth MacFarlane this year, “I thought you were going to do the Oscars again. Instead they got a lesbian.” He can say something like that. Is that more or less offensive than Alec Baldwin saying to someone in the street, “You fag”? I don’t get it.

You guys, all Gary Oldman wants is to be able to call Nancy Pelosi a fucking useless cunt in peace. Why can’t we let him have that?!

At the Oscars, if you didn’t vote for 12 Years a Slave you were a racist. You have to be very careful about what you say.

Ha ha ha, apparently you don’t!

So this interview has gone very badly. You have to edit and cut half of what I’ve said, because it’s going to make me sound like a bigot.

Gee, um, ya think? Because unless he was slyly doing an “in character” interview as Shelly Runyon, his vile, sexist, bile-spewing Republican Congressman from The Contender, an actor going this far off the rails in an interview is kind of baffling. That character/actor disparity might be the key, though; the kind of straight-talking, no-fuck-giving tough guys that a (white, male, hetero) actor like Oldman plays so well tend to work better as fictional creations than as real people, defending anti-Semites and homophobes.

There’s a lot to take apart here: the presumptiveness, the selectivity (Oldman only talks about Gibson’s DUI stop, a speed bump in his career, and not the notorious leaked “raped by a pack of niggers” phone tapes, which effectively ended it), the casual anti-Semitism, the utter incomprehension of what exactly satirists do. But what’s most interesting to me is how he trots out that old, tired specter of society’s real ill: “political correctness.”

Oldman uses that phrase three times in the last two pages of the interview, as an explanation for why we all got so worked up over the Gibson and Baldwin affairs. Isn’t it quaint/cute, how they’re still riding that old war horse? Oldman identifies himself as Libertarian (of course), but takes time in the interview to endorse the writings of super-conservative Charles Krauthammer; for a good two-and-a-half decades now, Republicans like him have invoked the “PC” bogeyman anytime anyone has dared to point out that, y’know, maybe you shouldn’t call black people that, or Jewish people that, or gay people that, or women that.

And whenever they flog that dolphin, they’re sending a decidedly worrisome message. PC outrage usually goes hand-in-hand with bullshit ‘50s nostalgia — longing for a simpler time, when life was easy, jobs were plentiful, families stayed together, everyone went to church, and (here’s the unspoken part) anyone who wasn’t a straight white male knew his/her place. Requesting — or even, if required, demanding — that people speak and behave like decent human beings shouldn’t cause a massive hemorrhage among rich white guys like Oldman — particularly in the year 2014 for Christ’s sake — yet somehow, it still does.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Internet Outrage Machine, a sort of nebulous, “military industrial complex”-style umbrella under which its critics place the cycles of Twitter sniping, hashtag activism, “thinkpieces,” and general online malaise that seems to work itself into a fury over a new controversy on a weekly or even daily basis. And let’s be clear: it’s not that it isn’t a real thing, that we’re not overly sensitive, easily riled, and quick to take offense on Twitter and online (and even, occasionally, on these very pages).

But in the process of accessing that phenomenon, something more worrisome has happened: just as “POLITICAL CORRECTNESS” became (and remains) the immediate reaction in some circles to genuine concerns over disparities in language, education, and opportunities, “INTERNET OUTRAGE MACHINE” is the new knee-jerk response whenever people (often rightly) freak out over cultural figures doing or saying something repugnant. At this point, the cycle moves so quickly that I was already seeing dismissals and defenses of Oldman’s comments on my timeline last night, before most people had even read them.

So, at risk of putting too fine a point on it: the things Mr. Oldman says in this interview are fucked up, and it’s not “whipping up Internet outrage” to say so, and wonder what kind of troubled psyche reaches those conclusions. And, by the same token, the actions of Gibson and Baldwin that Oldman defends were fucked up too, and it’s not “political correctness” to say so. The term (which, fun fact, dates all the way back to discussions of Stalinist doctrine) is outdated, outmoded, and inaccurate. It’s not “being politically correct.” It’s “not being a fucking asshole.”

And in that spirit, we’ll let Mr. Oldman have the last word:

I do have particular views and opinions that most of this town doesn’t share, but it’s not like I’m a fascist or a racist. There’s nothing like that in my history.

(Well, there wasn’t until now.)