On Sunday Morning, news began to break that America had lost one of its finest actors, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
To see a man die at the height of his powers is always devastating, all the more when that life and tremendous talent are dashed on the jagged rocks of selfish self-destruction. Undoubtedly there is a great lesson to be learned from the loss. Somewhere beneath the spectacle of the death of a celebrity, beyond the quiet suffering of the death of a father to three children is an urgent message about the dangers of excess – the need in the soul of man that not only isn’t met by great achievement, it's exacerbated by it. After all, Philip Seymour Hoffman killed himself, widowed – at least practically – the woman with whom he had shared his life, and left fatherless those children shooting up heroin.
The media calls the whole ordeal a tragedy, and it's certainly that, but reading the many stories published in the days since his death one gets the sense that the only tragedy they are referring to is that Hunger Games Three might have to do some recasting. If any reference is made to the actor’s gross selfishness, because drug use is certainly that, it’s only to inform us of what great stress the man who had it all was under, or to compare him to other live fast/die young types who tragically tragiced in their tragic primes.
That’s because Hollywood and the American media elite refuse to ever call people they like bad, or their behavior evil.
Monday, as people celebrated the life of a man who couldn’t be bothered not to throw it away, another Hollywood drama played out in the headlines. Woody Allen, a man currently married to his adopted daughter, is being accused by his other adopted daughter of raping her when she was a child. On The View, gatekeeper of the rich and famous, Barbara Walters, suggested that such claims were baseless based on the evidence. No, not the evidence that the man is married to his other adopted daughter, the other evidence – that he and his daughter/wife seem happy and committed to their children together when Walters sees them at the occasional interview or cocktail party.
Of course, this is nothing new. When Roman Polanski feeds a thirteen-year old girl drugs and then anally rapes her, he’s the victim. And really, what proof is there that Michael Jackson, a man who talks like a baby, calls himself Peter Pan, lives on an amusement park, has an alarm to let him know when people are approaching his bedroom, and admits to feeding children wine from Coke cans and calling it Jesus Juice before showering and sleeping in beds with them naked actually crossed any lines with children? I mean, lines other than feeding them wine from Coke cans and calling it Jesus Juice before showering and sleeping in beds with them naked...
The issue is that our society has made such caricatures of good men and evil men that we are incapable of recognizing good and evil when we actually see them in their natural, nuanced, messy manifestations. We know nothing about the people we believe are good or evil. We’ve propagandized ourselves out of any kind of discernment. During the Second World War, we made cartoons of Hitler, complete with devil horns and a tail, drinking the blood of children, and we believe it. As a result, we've left ourselves with no need or even interest in discovering what kind of man he must have really been in order to win his position and the loyalty of his people.
Here’s a hint: He must have been likeable. Very likeable.
And Mother Theresa, she probably had some rough edges like any forceful leader battling the realities of a third world slum. She probably had to throw a few elbows in her day. Who knows, she may have been less likeable than Hitler, which, of course, does nothing to change the fact that HITLER WAS EVIL. Our failure to separate what we like from what is good is the root of all sin, blinding us to the goodness of a God we often dislike or the evil of our fellow man, whom we like, and even ourselves, whom we like most of all.
The New Testament offers that no one is righteous, no not one. That goes for those we like and those we don't like as well, but we tend to measure things a bit differently than the apostle. For us, it tends to be thus: If we like them, they're good. End of story. We'll know evil when we see it. It will have a little mustache and a tail and look a lot like cartoon Hitler.
In the end, likability is a poor recommendation; likeable art more so. Beautiful or alluring art can often belie the gross and coarse reality of the artist. Like the Sirens of Greek Myth, likability in its myriad forms often obscures the evil actions and motives that animate a man, and very few people have the wisdom to chain themselves to the mast when they sail past it.