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The Horses are Already Frightened: How a Hockey Game Makes Me Rethink my Libertarian Instincts
“Chug, chug, chug!” The chanted exhortation, a staple of fraternity parties and hen nights, echoes through Crypto.com arena. The screens that hang over center ice show a middle-aged man, somewhere in the audience, draining a clear plastic cup of beer. As he finishes, he wipes the foam from his beard. The crowd cheers. A second later, the cameraman finds a young woman in a different tier of the arena; she rises, waves, swallows a cocktail, then grabs her boyfriend’s can of Modelo, pouring every last drop into her mouth. She finishes, grins, and to applause, offers an unstable bow.
Last night, I take my son to his first hockey game. We see the hometown L.A. Kings fall to the visiting New Jersey Devils. David is rapt; as it is my first hockey game as well, I am slightly bewildered. (My people are not hockey people. The action is a bit too fast, but the atmosphere is rollicking and fun.) During the lulls in the game, there are the usual activities of a live sporting event: raffles, dance competitions, salutes to veterans. I am accustomed to all that. I’ve never, however, seen such a celebration of binge drinking.
Half a dozen times – before the match, as well as during timeouts and intermissions – the cameras find folks with drinks in their hands, lingering on them until they succumb to the pressure to drain their cans and cups. At one point, they show a boy my son’s age; he chugs a Sprite to huge cheers; the camera then finds a toddler clutching an applesauce “squisher.” His parent, obedient to the demands of the crowd, squirts some fruit into the child’s mouth. The throng erupts with glee. How can this be a celebration of alcoholism if we root for toddlers and applesauce, kids and soda?
This is not something that seems to happen at NFL, NBA, or MLS matches. Football and basketball fans drink to excess, but generally without the overt encouragement of stadium management. I go to those events more frequently, and I’ve never seen anything quite like this repeated exhortation to guzzle booze. I suppose I could blame it all on hockey culture, about which I know almost nothing.
The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. It holds a lot of beer.
The whole spectacle does occasion a conversation with David, who nods with minimal interest as I warn against the dangers of peer pressure and heavy drinking. He knows his daddy doesn’t touch alcohol. Perhaps he files it away as “one of those things papa is funny about.” Perhaps he vaguely remembers the lesson. He does hold up his own $10 souvenir cup of Sprite and declare that he wishes the arena camera had found him. “I’d have swallowed the ice too!”
Since I was a teenager, I’ve been a reflexive libertarian. I came of age defending rock and roll against the likes of the Moral Majority and Tipper Gore. As a teen, I read Hustler and Penthouse out of lust, but also out of conviction. I admired Larry Flynt, the Hustler publisher, for his unflagging defense of unfettered free speech. (To be fair, one could argue that the man gave up his legs for the First Amendment.) I mocked Anita Bryant’s crusade against gay teachers. In 1984, I helped collect signatures for an ultimately successful campaign to keep my high school administration from closing the campus smoking area. (We won a decade or so of delay, but by the late 1990s, changing mores and laws had led to a complete tobacco ban at my alma mater.) I sided with my lefty friends on abortion rights, and my right-leaning friends on guns. I declared myself a model of consistency: people should be left alone to do as they please.
Growing up, my family was fond of the old saying attributed (wrongly) to Oscar Wilde: “You can do whatever you like as long as you don’t do it in the street and frighten the horses.” Whoever said it, the message resonated: it was important to “do one’s duty” and “show up” as “a contributing member of society.” In return for good manners and public ambition, one was permitted to do almost anything one liked when one was behind literal or metaphorical closed doors. The basic moral binary of my upbringing wasn’t Good versus Bad, or Healthy versus Sick, it was Public versus Private. It wasn’t hypocrisy to behave differently in different settings, it was a sign of both sophistication and kindness. A gentleman should be endlessly adaptable, and very slow to judge anyone but himself.
(My family views on pornography, summed up in a short anecdote: I brought a Hustler magazine to the ranch when I was perhaps 13. I generally hid it in my duffel bag, but one day, left it out on the bedside table, as I had a little room to myself.
One morning, my grandmother came in looking for something; we had a storage area in that bedroom.
Later that day, a grave-faced aunt pulled me aside. “Darling, you really must tuck all your unmentionables away each morning. Please do be more careful.”)
On both left and right, the genial laissez-faire liberalism of my youth is out-of-vogue. My left-wing friends have long since turned their backs on unfettered free speech. The standard argument on the American left is that free speech protects what is hateful, racist, and reactionary. Institutions, my far-left friends say, have a moral responsibility not to platform ideas that might harm the feelings of members of underrepresented groups. In my childhood, the ACLU went to court to defend the right of the Nazis to march; today’s ACLU has long since repudiated what it now regards as an irresponsible defense of hate. Meanwhile, my conservative friends, alarmed at the prospect of kid-friendly drag shows, have returned to the culture wars with renewed zeal. Some – not many, but some – even talk of rolling back same-sex marriage rights.
My old self wants to mock both groups. I want to wave my hand with an air of world-weary indulgence, declaring that in a truly civilized society, we should have Nazis and drag queens alike, merrily marching on parallel avenues, with the police on hand to keep emotions in check. The horses only get frightened when they sense an angry mob; if the Nazis are cheerful and the drag queens are laughing, what’s the harm? Surely, if no one loses their temper and throws a punch, we can all just get along? Isn’t the essence of the American experiment the idea that we should maximize both tolerance and self-restraint?
My lefty friends say I am speaking from a position of privilege, and that I have no visceral concept of how words can harm. My righty friends say I have made an idol out of a Non-Judgment Principle and am standing idly and genially by while the entire social order collapses. (Both groups think my insistence that everyone be calm and convivial in the face of existential provocations is a bit of an overask.)
“Your anger is frightening the horses,” I say to my friends.
“Hugo,” they reply, “in case you haven’t noticed, the horses are already frightened.”
I got home late last night from the hockey game. Still, I didn’t go straight to bed. Instead, I wrote a letter to the L.A. Kings and Crypto arena. I explained that as a father and a sober alcoholic, I was shaken and horrified by what could only be described as a reckless celebration of binge drinking. I asked the team and the arena management to consider the tremendous harm that alcoholism has done and continues to do. I asked them to consider their own liability, should one of those fans who chugged a beer on camera cause a car accident after the game. I asked them – so help me – to think of the children.
I thought of what a younger, childless me would have said. My old me would have told myself, you can’t and shouldn’t drink because you’re an alcoholic, but don’t be a tiresome spoilsport. If people want to get hammered on camera, what’s the harm? The arena sells some more booze, someone has a headache tomorrow, and we all have a laugh. Relax! Stop being such a Puritan.
I thought of David, lamenting his own missed opportunity to pound 16 ounces of carbonated sugar water on camera to wild applause. My boy will be in college in the blink of an eye. Is it so wrong to want the culture to also reinforce common sense, or at least not actively undermine it? Is it so wrong to want to go to a sporting event without having one’s most basic values assaulted?
I have not sent the letter. My old libertine self won’t let me push “send” on the email. I am, however, filled with a new and unfamiliar empathy for my friends on both left and right, friends who look at this strange and precarious world and say, “We tolerate too much, and we push back too little, and won’t someone think of the children?”