On April 27th, the New York Police Department booked Detroit Tigers’ outfielder Delmon Young on assault charges. With the Tigers in town to play the Yankees, Young painted the Big Apple red, getting “highly intoxicated” and engaging in a violent scuffle on Sixth Avenue around 2:40 in the morning. The fact that Young, a troubled and much disliked “headcase” with a history of violent outbursts, ran afoul of the law is not, in and of itself, particularly interesting. What is compelling about the case is the fact that Young’s offence was no mere drunken beatdown, but rather a drunken hate crime. Encountering a yamulke-donning panhandler, the former top prospect shouted, “Fucking Jews! Fucking Jews” at the man. How this fed into the assault at hand remains unclear, but New York state prosecutors quickly booked Young on first-degree aggravated harassment charges and have openly characterized the attack as racially motivated.
Either out of sincere contrition or, more likely, a desire to not be publicly branded a bigot for the rest of his life, Young was quick to release a statement in his defence. ”I’m sorry to all the fans, the Tigers, my teammates and everybody out there,” he explained, “but I just want everyone to know that I am not anti-Semitic. I wasn’t raised that way. I came from a good family and we weren’t taught any of that.” Yahoo Sports’ Noah Trister further explains that Young claims, “alcohol is to blame for this latest incident – not any ill feelings toward members of any religion.” As proof of his supposed anti-anti-Semitism, Young had his Jewish agent, Arn Tellem, release a statement emphatically stating that his client is not an anti-Semite, but he simply “drank too much on the night of the incident, and…put himself in a compromising situation.” It remains to be seen how effective Young’s “I can’t be anti-Semitic, my agent’s Jewish” defence will sit with the public over the coming months.
It must be said that Young is only a “celebrity” in the broadest sense of the term, though he does symbolize something larger and more insidious about the interplay between celebrity, alcohol, and discrimination. Over the last six years, a procession of celebrities have devolved into anti-Semitic diatribes, only to later blame alcohol and drug addictions for the articulation of such thoughts. The first, and most troubling, example of this trend was Mel Gibson’s infamous 2006 DUI arrest that led to the Passion of the Christ director vituperating his (Jewish) arresting officer with a slew of insult and exclaiming “”Fucking Jews…The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.” A few days after TMZ.com broke the story of his outburst, Gibson released a statement in which he explained “I have battled with the disease of alcoholism for all of my adult life and profoundly regret my horrific relapse. I apologize for any behavior unbecoming of me in my inebriated state and have already taken necessary steps to ensure my return to health.” A man who had long been viewed as anti-Semitic was now claiming that liquor (and not, say, the influence of Gibson’s own Holocaust-denying father) led the movie star to proclaim things he believed not to be true.
In February 2011, Christian Dior suspended and then fired Head Designer John Galliano for his own anti-Semitic outburst. At a Paris bar, Galliano repeatedly insulted an adjacent couple, calling one a “fucking ugly Jewish bitch” and the other a “fucking Asian bastard.” He also loudly exclaimed his love for Adolf Hitler and, in all, reportedly popped off thirty anti-Semitic slurs in forty-five minutes. Because he made his statement in France, a nation with strict anti-hate speech crime laws, Galliano was forced to go to trial over his comments. The state quickly and successfully convicted Galliano of “public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity,” having argued that, although the designer “was not a ‘theoretician’ of race hatred,” he exhibited “everyday anti-Semitism and racism.” Like Gibson before him and Young after Galliano argued, in court no less, that his outburst was the product of an alcohol addiction that he nursed as a means of coping with his high stress job. “After every creative high, I would crash and the alcohol helped me,” he explained to the presiding justice. Once again, like Gibson and Young, Galliano was unable to show what, exactly, the connection was between his alcohol abuse and his “poor decision” to engage in hate speech.
While Gibson, Galliano, and Young’s admirers may be eager to follow their idols’ leads and blame the “demon drink” for their high-profile embarrassments, the willingness to chalk up bigotry to alcohol or drug abuse seems to have more grounding in the “Halo Effect” than in either sense or science. In a perfunctory search for medical corroborations of the “alcohol-induced racism” defence, one finds just one hesitant defender of this view, celebrity rehab specialist Dr. Drew Pinsky. In 2006, following Gibson’s arrest and his subsequent alcohol-related defenses, CNN’s Anderson Cooper, hosting Showbiz Tonight, asked Pinsky about whether one should doubt the veracity of Gibson’s claims in the most leading way imaginable, coaxing a rambling, semi-coherent response from Pinsky:
Cooper: Well, it`s been said that alcohol is a truth serum…All right, Dr. Drew, is alcohol really a truth serum?
Pinsky: Not really. Listen, it`s something that affects brain function profoundly… Thinking is part — or disturbed thinking and thinking at the service of addiction is part of the disease process. So people think doing things like this, you see them going out and doing these crazy things, he thought that was a great idea. That`s disturbed — that`s not normal thinking. And he may have thought things were OK to say. Not normal thinking.
Even after Cooper posed his question in the most loaded and condescending way imaginable – characterizing Gibson’s detractors as gullible fools who believe that alcohol is some sort of magic potion – Pinsky had major trouble defending Gibson’s defense. One can largely chalk this up to the fact that Pinsky, Gibson, Galliano, and Young are making the same counterfactual argument, that alcohol does not lower users’ inhibitions to the point they feel they can express personally held, but socially unacceptable, viewpoints. As Dr. Gary Malone of the Baylor University Medical Center explains in the article “Is Alcohol Truth Serum?”, “when anyone drinks there is a neurological and psychological regression, and the higher the blood alcohol level, the more primitive and hostile the response that comes out…Alcohol can’t make you think or feel things.” This seems to be an inconvenient, and widely ignored, truth to a legion of non-racist What a Girl Wants fans.
In his article “Medical Alert: Alcohol Is Turning Our Celebrities Into Anti-Semites,” Pete Vonder Haar viciously mocks the idea that alcohol causes anti-Semitism, describing alcohol-based malady supposedly haunting Gibson, Galliano, and Young “as indiscriminate as it is devastating. Scientists are baffled, because they know — from a diagnostic sense — that alcohol in NO WAY brings out a person’s true feelings or amplifies that which is in their subconscious, but instead brings about a re-engineering of one’s neural pathways, causing one to see vast, Jewish conspiracies.” Vonder Haar also taps into the importance of the Halo Effect in empowering celebrities to make such seemingly implausible arguments, explaining “there is a cure: rehab…Once they put in their perfunctory six weeks at Trembling Hills or the like, any celebrity will return to the pleasant, welcoming mind-set that is the hallmark of all who are richer and, therefore, better than normal people.”
Like Vonder Haar, Jezebel’s Anna North finds the addiction claim wildly misleading. In her article “Bad News: Rehab Does Not Cure Anti Semitism,” North argues that John Galliano’s escape to an Arizona rehab clinic for alcoholism treatment was a calculated attempt to “make him look contrite.” Like Mel Gibson, Galliano only entered rehab for his alcoholism after he was caught having uttered taboo racist sentiments for which there are no take-backs and no rehab equivalent. North likens Gibson and Galliano’s stays in rehab as similar to how Gray’s Anatomy star Isaiah Washington checked himself into a clinic after publicly describing co-star Patrick Dempsey as a “faggot.” Tellingly, Washington later acknowledged that his trip to rehab was a cynical PR move, openly acknowledging, “there is no rehab for homophobia,” but also adding that he himself is not homophobic. For whatever his moral failings, Washington must be given credit for publicly acknowledging his own cynicism.
Washington’s statement is a blow for intellectual honesty, an acknowledgement that Gibson, Galliano, and Young’s willingness to blame alcohol use for anti-Semitism are insincere and should be roundly spurned. When people reject the seemingly obvious idea that alcohol lowers inhibitions and allows anti-Semites to feel more comfortable in sharing views they would otherwise feel compelled to hide, they attempt to shift the responsibility for hate speech on to alcohol itself. Those who hold this view would have us channel our inner Lyman Beechers, they would have us invest in alcohol an almost magical ability to completely re-wire the human brain and cause certain drinkers to say and do things they know to be wrong. Such a belief takes a magnificently hubristic denial of science, common sense, and personal experience.
Despite its ridiculous premise, the argument that addiction causes bigotry continues on, as the case of Delmon Young shows. Perhaps this is because, in a supposedly post-racial American society, the public is eager to accept a pseudo-scientific, even decidedly non-scientific, explanation for racist attacks on a historically oppressed minority rather than grapple with the fact that someone they once idolized harbors widely detested racialist attitudes. Maybe it’s just easier to believe in a comforting mythology than let that Mad Max boxed set go to waste.