In Vino Veritas?

One would not expect a man who was filmed saying “I love Hitler” to earn a Jew’s pity and (dare I say) affection.  But that John Galliano is one charming guy.

Galliano, you might recall, is the influential fashion guru who ruled over Christian Dior until his career came to a spectacular, crashing end in February 2011, when a cell phone video revealed him hurling anti-Semitic and other insults at fellow patrons in a Parisian bar.  Galliano has been lying low as a social pariah and persona non grata ever since.

Until now.  Galliano’s first post-exile interview appears in this month’s issue of Vanity Fair, and he also spoke in recent weeks with PBS’s Charlie Rose.  Galliano used both platforms as a means of explaining himself and making amends, and he proves a highly compelling subject.

The fascination with the former king of couture springs from the fact that the abjectly hateful comments in question—informing Jewish customers, “your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed,” among other things—genuinely seemed to come out of nowhere.

If all one knew of him was the footage of his fateful night in Paris, one would simply render him a British Mel Gibson minus the subtlety:  A boorish, arrogant, bigoted little puke who enjoys the fine art of imbibing just a little too much.

In point of fact, alcohol was indeed a main character in the story of Galliano’s fall—far more so than in Gibson’s, and in a far more intriguing way.

In the case of Mr. Braveheart, who in 2006 famously ranted about “the Jews” while being arrested for driving while intoxicated, alcohol’s magical powers of removing one’s inhibitions led him to express views that the world already knew (or suspected) he possessed.  Gibson might not have uttered such anti-Semitic slurs in a state of sobriety, but such slurs uttered under the influence nonetheless reflected what he truly thinks about God’s chosen tribe.

Galliano, by contrast, has never been known to harbor anti-Semitic sentiments in his life, either in word or in deed.  His outburst came amidst an extended period of alcoholism so pronounced that he has no memory of it ever occurring.  At the time, he was operating as a (fairly high-functioning) blackout drunk, not fully cognizant of the thoughts that were forming in his head and spilling out of his mouth.

To the extent that Galliano’s comments reflected views heretofore stowed safely in his subconscious, they were buried so profoundly deep as to call into question whether they can fairly be categorized as his.

The relevant adage we must address, as Vanity Fair does, is in vino veritas—the notion that alcohol is a truth serum and the key to our real selves.  That the things we say in sobriety are tailored to political correctness and social mores, while our drunken musings are the genuine article.

A great deal depends upon the veracity of this maxim, and yet the science on the matter remains highly unsettled.  As we drinkers all know from experience, liquor certainly can induce one to speak truths otherwise left unsaid.  However, it can equally provoke meditations and wisequacks whose origins we cannot quite place, even within our own heads, the effect of which can be quite unnerving, indeed.

Are we prepared to indict ourselves for every impolitic remark that has ever passed our lips at 3 o’clock in the morning after a few dozen glasses of scotch?  Should we treat what we say while drunk as if it were said while sober?  If we are willing to declare—as much of the culture was—that what John Galliano said in a blackout state warranted the end of his career and two years of public exile, are we equally willing to levy the same for ourselves?

None of this is to relieve Galliano—or anyone else—of responsibility for irresponsible drinking.  However culpable one’s peers might be for acting as enablers and eggers-on—particularly of someone rich and famous, who is that much more prone to spiral out of control with little advance warning—we are all free agents, and must try our level best to extricate ourselves from habits that are harmful to us and to others.

Yet I nonetheless wonder if our culture’s policy of having “zero tolerance” for those who say and do repulsive things, without examining the particular context of those words and acts, is not itself harmful to our society, which is supposedly rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition that prizes forgiveness, understanding and mercy as the highest of earthly virtues.