KSJ Tracker July 16, 2013

Slate: Cristina Nehring's callous 'defense' of drunks.

Drunkenness of Noah (Bellini)

An article entitled "In defense of drunks" is the kind of thing you might expect to see in Maxim, where drunkenness might be promoted as a way to seduce women, or in Esquire, where the focus would be on literary drunks. When such an article appears in Slate, we might hope for a serious, intelligent piece that says something original and insightful about drinking.

That is emphatically not what we get in Cristina Nehring's callous and misinformed tract that appeared under that headline on July 2.

I had problems with this story even before I got to the text. The subhed reads, "Why do we disdain the drinkers and praise the pill poppers?" Do we? Who is praising pill poppers? Nehring relies on the subhed to erect her straw man, and now we're off and running.

She uses, as her starting point, an article in thefix.com in which Maia Szalavitz, a TIME magazine health writer and the author of six books, writes about how Zoloft helped her escape addiction to heroin and cocaine in her 20s, when she was injecting herself up to 40 times a day. Without naming Szalavitz, Nehring writes that Szalavitz's story was "an all-too-hackneyed contemporary coming-of-age story: the rueful user of nonprescription drugs (e.g., alcohol) who becomes a pious user of prescription drugs (i.e., Zoloft and others)....she has simply swapped one addiction for another addiction, at least equally powerful."

Woops. Nehring mistakenly begins her defense of drunks with an anecdote about a heroin user, not a drinker. Slate later corrected the anecdote to say "the memoirist" (still unnamed) was not an alcoholic. Slate should have removed it. It was cruel, erroneous, and--once it was corrected--irrelevant.

Nehring goes on to say that "wine, whisky, beer" are to be preferred over prescription drugs because they "tended to draw" their users "into the public sphere." She is making are argument for socializing over isolation, which might be reasonable, but which she wrongly conflates with drinking or prescription-drug abuse. Drink is public, she says; pills are not. Therefore, drunkenness is better. In Nehring's skewed view, drunks drink only in bars; they don't drink at home. And pill-users never go out. Neither is true. People get drunk at home; people who abuse pills go out.

She goes on to praise Dylan Thomas, a wildly successful poet--and a drunkard. It doesn't seem to bother her that he died at 39, as she reports, and that his wife lived for nearly half a century, during which, Nehring writes, she experienced "fathomless despair at having to continue to exist without him." Viva, drunks!

Her next idealized drunk is Christopher Hitchens, whom, she writes, crafted "tens of thousands of boldly argued essays, articles, speeches" and so forth, and was an "imbiber of thousands of bottles of liquor a year."

Let's do the math on that. Tens of thousands of essays and articles? Let's say, conservatively, that the total was 25,000. (A mere 10,000 essays would not qualify as "tens" of thousands.) If he wrote for 40 years, that comes to 625 articles--or almost two a day--every day of his adult life. And thousands of bottles of liquor a year? Let's say 2,500; that's 50 bottles per week, or 7 bottles per day. Yes, I'm familiar with hyperbole as a figure of speech. I'm also familiar with changing the facts to make a point, a maneuver not usually categorized as a figure of speech. Hutchins, by the way, also died young--at 62. Viva, viva!

"The dangers of prescription drugs," she writes, "are in danger or [sic] seriously lapping the dangers of good old wine and beer." Seriously? Does she think the dangers Szalavitz faces from Zoloft "lap" the dangers she faced while addicted to cocaine and heroin?

Nehring wrote a book about her daughter's treatment for leukemia. While she seems to have nothing good to say about prescription drugs--we're just exchanging one addiction for another--she might feel differently about the prescription drugs given to her daughter to fight her cancer. If it's wrong to use prescription drugs to treat drug addiction, is it wrong to use them to treat leukemia? I don't know what Nehring says about that; I haven't read the book.

In a fiery rebuttal to Nehring's article, Szalavitz writes that "the problem of addiction is not defined by taking a substance to function (as I do with my meds)...Instead, addiction is compulsive engagement with a substance or activity despite negative consequences." That would certainly seem to describe Thomas and Hitchens.

Four corrections have been made to Nehring's article since it was published--just one more indication that it shouldn't have been published at all. Next time she wants to defend drunks, Nehring might do better to query the lads at Maxim.

-Paul Raeburn


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