Thursday, June 23, 2011

Galliano and the Big Machine

Earlier this year, the French fashion house Christian Dior fired designer John Galliano after a bizarre anti-Semitic outburst in Paris. Not longer after, Paris prosecutors announced that he would face a trial for his remarks.

There are a number of things that were interesting about this case, among them the oddity -- to an American -- of a French law that allows someone to be prosecuted for what they say. You could also note, as Rhonda Garelick did in the New York Times, the historic relationship between fashion and fascism: Isn't haute couture, with its "cult of physical perfection," anti-democratic -- essentially "fascist" -- to its core?

But the latest developments are just sad. Galliano has two defenses. First, alcohol and drugs made him say things that were completely out of character. Second, he couldn't possibly be anti-Semitic because as a gay man he knows what it is like to be discriminated against.

This is hard to explain, but I think those explanations are both deeply true and utterly false.

On the one hand, this feels honest to me:
Under questioning, he said his addictions to alcohol, sleeping pills and Valium were a crutch to cope with extreme work pressures and financial crisis.

“The drinking started in a cyclical way. After every creative high I would crash,” Mr. Galliano said, adding that the death of a friend and key aide, along with work pressures, exacerbated his drinking.

“Dior is a big machine and I didn't want to lose Galliano,” he said of his own label, which is majority owned by Dior. He complained about suffering panic attacks as he struggled to raise new revenues for his brands for everything from children’s underwear to menswear.

That creative people are prone to drug abuse and precarious mental states is a stereotype, but I think there really is something in the creative process that requires total immersion in what you're doing for awhile, shutting the world out, and then trying to crash back into the world. It's not something people who live a more regulated life understand. That's my experience of what writing poems and stories is like anyway, and I can only imagine how much more difficult it must be in a world as high-pressured as the fashion industry. It is one hell of a Big Machine.

On the other hand, I don't think drugs and alcohol make you into something you're not. Drugs may bring out an anti-Semitism that normally you'd keep hidden, but it doesn't create the sentiments. That doesn't necessarily mean I think John Galliano is a closet bigot outted by Valium. I think every human being has dark places in his soul, some he doesn't want the world to know about, some so deep he doesn't know himself that they exist. Sometimes that dark place pushes through into the world. I think that's what happened here.

Maybe that's why the idea of restrictions on speech bothers me. I understand how dangerous hate speech can be. I remember George Wallace, playing a game with racism, and in the process inflicting wounds on this country that still haven't healed. According to the Times article on Galliano, the law under which he's being prosecuted "ordinarily ensnares far-right politicians with a clear ideology." French George Wallaces. But when you have a law like that, ordinarily it won't be used against the powerful, the really dangerous people who regularly toy with hatred, but against someone whose dark place just emerged.

It will be used by the Big Machine.

Basically, I don't like the idea of singling individuals out as bigots. I doubt there is a single person on earth who is immune to bigotry. We all have biases. We all hold to unexamined stereotypes. The danger is not from people who let one of them slip out in a drunken rant. The danger is manifest when those biases and stereotypes alter the judgment of people in power, or worse, when people in power -- like George Wallace -- prey on bigotry, making it all that much harder to do away with.

So, in this instance, I have more sympathy than disdain for John Galliano.

I feel similarly about his claim that as a gay man, he has experienced and therefore despises bigotry. This is sad:

“I know what it feels to be discriminated against,” Mr. Galliano testified, noting that his real name is Juan and that his mother is Spanish. “We moved to south London when I was 6 years old and aware that I was gay. I was sent to a difficult English boys school and you can imagine that children can be cruel.”
Indeed. I can't help but care about that 6-year-old child, and even the 50-year-old man who carries that child around in his bruised heart. But the world is full of victims who turn right around and victimize others. We have a long history in this country of poor whites lynching blacks, and immigrant groups inching their way into the mainstream and hating the new immigrants. Hell, that last one is such a cliché we made a musical out of it:

If experiencing pain made people determined to never cause pain, the world would be painless.

It is not.


Domenico Maceri said...

Sometimes people who have suffered discrimination or abuse turn these actions on others. I am thinking about the Israelis and the Palestinians. I find it difficult to understand how many (most?) Israelis don't see that they are victimizing Palestinians as Israelis/Jews have also been victims.

Linda said...

That's a good example. I left it sounding as if that pattern of victims as victimizers was uniquely American, but of course it's not. I'm reading a mystery novel set in Bosnia in the early '90, written by an American foreign correspondent who worked there. I never completely understood that war when it was happening, except that all the different ethnic groups that made up the former Yugoslavia hated each other, and that the Serbs perpetrated most of the brutality. What I didn't know much about -- which comes out in the background of the story -- is that a lot of Croats were Nazi-sympathizers during WWII, members of a fascist group called the Ustasha, and their victims were Serbs. 50 years later, the Serbs still saw themselves as victims -- and they were certainly justified in feeling that way -- who believed they had a right to do to others what was done to them. The result was another 20th century European genocide.