According to Mel Gibson, his new movie, "Apocalypto," is a metaphor for the death of American civilization. "The precursors to a civilization that’s going under are the same, time and time again," Gibson explained at a film festival in Texas. "What’s human sacrifice if not sending guys off to Iraq for no reason?"
Gibson’s comparison between Mayan and American civilization is deeply offensive. To elucidate just how offensive the comparison is, I must review the film’s portrayal of Mayan society. (Warning: There are spoilers. If you are intent on seeing this movie, read no further.)
"Apocalypto" portrays two societies within Mayan civilization. The first is a hunter-gatherer sort of Rousseau-ian society, wherein noble savages tell colorful stories, cherish their pregnant wives and play practical jokes involving eating raw tapir testicles. The second is the decadent Mayan city, where slave laborers covered in powder cough up blood as they pound rock; where throngs cheer wildly as power-mad priests engage in ritual human sacrifice, pulling still-beating hearts from chest cavities, beheading victims and tossing those heads down towering flights of stairs to a waiting crowd, which then sticks the heads on pikes; where the headless bodies are dumped in Holocaust-like mass graves, to rot in the sun.
The Mayan city society invades the Rousseau-ian hunter-gatherer society, brutally and graphically raping and murdering its way through village after village. Citizens of the hunter-gatherer society are kidnapped and used for ritual sacrifice, or for sport killing.
Gibson’s point is this: Mayan civilization in decline had corrupted itself through brutality and barbarity. It sacrificed its own citizens on the altar of fear. The values that made Mayan civilization worth preserving — the values embodied by the Rousseau-ian society — were destroyed so that the fears of the population could be assuaged. In doing so, Mayan society made itself ripe for conquer by the Europeans.
Gibson likens Mayan civilization to American civilization. "We’re all afraid," Gibson told Entertainment Weekly. "That’s something I’ve been finding out more recently — how racked by fear we are as a society." We are discarding our values, Gibson implies. We are engaging in Mayan barbarities in Iraq, sending our own citizens off to die on the altar of fear.
"Apocalypto" opens with a quotation from historian Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it destroys itself from within." Durant is correct — but the film’s exposition of Durant is utterly wrong. If American (and Western) civilization falls, it will not be because our fears drove us to "Mayan barbarities," but because, like Gibson, we failed to distinguish good from evil.
Not all civilizations are created equal: Some deserve to fall because they are deeply corrupt from the outset. Mayan civilization, with its human sacrifice and primitivism, was never a beacon of liberty. The Rousseau-ian values Gibson sees were not what distinguished Mayan civilization. The strength of Mayan civilization was based solely on its power — it was doomed to fail from the moment it encountered a society more powerful militaristically and economically than itself.
Western civilization has values worth protecting — liberty and equality of opportunity — and those values give it strength. Those values make us stronger than our enemies, unlike the Mayans. Equating all civilizations, as Gibson does, is what undermines Western values. There is a world of difference between using violence out of superstition and using violence to both ensure domestic security and free others from the oppression of a death cult that ritually beheads its citizens or dumps them in mass graves. It is moral barbarism of the highest order to equate the two, as Gibson does.
Critics have rightly focused on the stunning violence of Gibson’s "Apocalypto." The movie is certainly one of the most violent ever filmed — Gibson’s camera lingers lovingly over each wound. But it is the violence Gibson does to morality that should worry us. It is that violence that contributes to the internal destruction of Western civilization. If Western civilization is doomed to failure, it will not be despite Mel Gibson’s best efforts, it will be because of them.