Mega-buck actor Will Smith got the shock of his life when he got word that gossip columnists had twisted and mangled his quip about Adolf Hitler. The celebrity gossip buzz was that Smith praised Hitler as a good guy. Smith, of course, did no such thing. What he said was that Hitler wasn't inherently obsessed with doing evil; but being the calculating, scheming megalomaniac that he was, he wound up doing the ultimate in evil.
Apparently Smith used the Hitler reference to underscore his belief that there's good in everyone. Smith was naive in making reference to Hitler to make any point no matter how well-intentioned. Hitler is the supreme taboo example to use to make any point about good and evil, human foibles and frailties, let alone a political point. Smith was even more naive in thinking that a Hitler reference would slip under the media and public's radar scope. If ever there was a quote that was ripe for the gossip pickings to be distorted, and draw instant howls of outrage from some quarters, it was Smith citing Hitler.
There's an even bigger reason that Smith momentarily got dumped on the hot seat for his Hitler quip. Though Smith is an immensely popular guy on the screen and with much of the public, he's an African-American. While that in no way earns him the designation as an activist or leader, which he isn't, there is a special sensitivity when references to Hitler slip from the lips of a noted African-American. Former Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan can be thanked for that unhappy burden. Two decades ago Farrakhan lambasted Judaism and in an even more intemperate moment called Hitler a great man. It was a rotten, ill-timed reference, but Farrakhan intent solely was to make the point that Hitler had rebuilt a war devastated Germany. That point and his intent was quickly lost or deliberately distorted in the storm of fury and condemnation of Farrakhan.
The controversy didn't end there. Farrakhan had unwittingly set an inverse standard of speech by which African-American public figures would be judged. There was a reason for that, too. There was, and still is, the sneaky suspicion among much of the public that far too many African-Americans, and that includes activist black leaders, are smitten with anti-Semitic bias. The Farrakhan-Hitler flap ignited fierce debate over whether blacks were more anti-Semitic than any other group in America.
That question was fiercely hashed out and over in a spate of books and articles on the general theme of black anti-Semitism. Some blacks tried to turn the tables and knock Jewish leaders for not speaking out strongly against racial bigotry among some Jews. But that got little traction. The media and public's glare stayed hotly focused on black organizations and leaders. They were put on sharp notice that anything that was said that could even be remotely construed as being anti-Semitic would draw instant heat. The paramount litmus test for that was a Hitler reference. No matter what the context, meaning, or the intention of the speaker, the name Hitler was not to be uttered.
Smith can be pardoned for his naivety about what an African-American public figure can and can't say. He is an actor, and not a politician or a civil rights leader. And he, as with most entertainers, seldom gives much thought to what they say about political events and issues since they generally say very little anyway about them. When they do they perceive that few will take anything they say about political or social issues seriously. In most cases, they're right. And that probably would have been true with Smith and his Hitler reference, too, if not for the phenomenal acclaim he's gotten for his role in the blockbuster film, I Am Legend, and just as importantly, the history of contentiousness over Farrakhan's Hitler outburst.
Smith scrambled fast to head even more controversy about the Hitler reference off at the celebrity chit chat pass. He denounced Hitler in the strongest terms, as well as those that deliberately distorted his words. Most will accept Smith's "clarification." After all no one will ever confuse him with Farrakhan. Still, Smith learned the hard lesson that the road to Hell may be paved with good intentions, but that road can't include a reference to Hitler, at least by a noted African-American. That even includes one of the Hollywood worlds most swooned over actors.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press) hutchinsonreport@aol