Where Philip Seymour Hoffman and Sally Bercow converge

Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Image courtesy Focus Film)

Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Image courtesy Focus Film)

At first glance there isn’t much common ground.

Hoffman, who died of a heroin overdose on 2 February at age 46, was an immensely talented thespian, arguably the best character actor of his generation.

At 44, Sally is almost Hoffman’s age, but her sole conspicuous accomplishment so far is being married to John Bercow, the Speaker of the House of Commons and therefore one of Britain’s most important politicians.

Hoffman possessed a genuine gift – all he had to do to stay in the limelight was keep working with his customary dedication. He was an old-fashioned celebrity, one who owed his fame to actual attainment.

Sally is a newfangled celebrity wholly manufactured by the media. As such, she doesn’t rely on her nonexistent attainments to remain in the public eye: all she needs is the odd bit of scandal, the slimier the better.

Any decent person would be too proud to seek cheap, utterly undeserved publicity. But our Sally is a modern person, not a decent one. She has to appear in glossies and tabloids at whatever cost – this is a compulsion shared by most modern people devoid of inner content, which is to say most modern people.

Sally would consent to be photographed having an abortion, if that were the only way. Mercifully she doesn’t have to go so far. Considering her hubby-wubby, she can get on front pages with a minimum of effort.

To that end she has posed wearing only a bed sheet against the background of her husband’s House, flashed her underwear in public, appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, rolled blind drunk out of night clubs in full view of (probably) pre-alerted paparazzi, laughed as she was pawed from behind by unidentified men.

The other day she was photographed on one such occasion, wearing a silly wig and French-kissing a muscular, heavily tattooed black man about half her age. The picture made the front page of The Sun, whence it has spread over to both broadsheets and other tabloids.

Sex sells, goes the old truism, and Sally hasn’t been bashful about disclosing the intimate details of her life. In her youth she was “addicted to alcohol”, routinely drinking several bottles of wine every day. She’d then pick up strangers at clubs or pubs and “go home with them”, waking up in places, and with men, she didn’t know.

Now she’s trying to fight such urges, but sometimes they get the better of her. Sometimes they prove beyond her control.

If Sally were married to an accountant or, which is closer to her intellectual and moral level, a dope pusher, she wouldn’t make the papers. And even if she did something truly outrageous, she’d barely merit an inch on Page 74, with most readers dismissing her as a vulgar, drink-sodden slut.

But she’s married neither to an accountant nor a dope pusher. That’s why hacks seriously and sympathetically discuss her “condition”, talking about her “addictive personality”, “desire to be liked”, “inability to toe the line”, intolerable “pressure to conform” and other factors supposedly beyond her control.

The impression one gets is that Sally is an innocent victim of external circumstances, some of them purely medical. She has an addictive personality, doesn’t she? So she can’t help acting in a grossly obscene manner. It’s beyond her control.

Similar arguments are being put forth on behalf of Hoffman, a great actor but a flawed man. You see, he suffered from a disease, now unfortunately pandemic,  known as drug addiction. At age 22 he courageously went into a remission, then suffered a relapse.

When in the throes of his disease, Hoffman stuffed his flat with heroin-based substances not exactly approved by the FDA, MHRA or any other regulatory body. One of the substances proved too potent, and the actor was found dead with a syringe stuck into his vein.

Conclusion? Legalise drugs, which will prevent similar tragedies. The FDA would have done for Hoffman what he couldn’t possibly have done for himself. Protecting his own life was beyond his control.

The inference one derives is that alcoholism and drug addiction are basically medical conditions, like laryngitis or cancer. We catch dependence on booze or heroin the way we catch flu – it’s beyond our control.

However, there’s a noticeable difference between cancer and drug addiction: only the former is truly beyond our control. We can’t choose not to have cancer. We can choose not to mainline heroin.

This was established in a statistically reliable trial on millions of subjects by that great clinician Mao Zedong. One fine day Mao declared that anyone caught taking drugs would be summarily shot. As the threat was both dire and credible, it had a remarkable curative effect: within days the number of drug addicts in China dwindled away to zero. Somehow one doubts that a similar promise would have reduced the incidence of cancer as successfully.

Though they may have medical consequences, drug addiction and alcoholism are existential, not medical, problems. They are a result of a person exercising, or rather abusing, his God-given free will. Like any other freedom this one presents a choice between right and wrong, presupposing the possibility of a person opting for the latter.

People who choose to go wrong effectively throw God’s gift back into his face, just like our progenitors did in the garden of Eden. Nonetheless God forgives them and so must we. But spare us the medicalised psychobabble: such idiotic bien pensantnonsense is truly unforgivable.

Those who throw away their life, à la Hoffman, or every vestige of human dignity, à la Sally, deserve pity or, in Hoffman’s case, sorrow. But they don’t deserve sympathy: what happens to them isn’t beyond their control.

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