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Why it's not OK that Mark Wahlberg is hosting a kids' award show

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I was walking past the MTV building in Times Square on the way to work when I noticed a giant banner for Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards on March 29. This year’s host, the banner announced, was Mark Wahlberg.

When I saw Wahlberg’s smiling face and sinewy shoulders on the poster, I felt a little queasy. Because a few months ago, out of curiosity after seeing him in a trailer for Lone Survivor, I had looked up Wahlberg’s Wikipedia page, which features an entire section on his history of assaults and convictions. Rather than summarizing them individually, I’ll just quote them directly from the page:

At 15, civil action was filed against Wahlberg for his involvement in two separate incidents of harassing African-American children (the first some siblings and the second a group of black school children on a field trip), by throwing rocks and shouting racial epithets.[11] At 16, Wahlberg approached a middle-aged Vietnamese man on the street and, using a large wooden stick, knocked him unconscious while yelling a racial epithet. That same day, he also attacked another Vietnamese man, leaving the victim permanently blind in one eye...

Commenting in 2006 on his past crimes, Wahlberg has stated: "I did a lot of things that I regret, and I have certainly paid for my mistakes." He said the right thing to do would be to try to find the blinded man and make amends, and admitted he has not done so, but added that he was no longer burdened by guilt: "...[I]t wasn't until I really started doing good and doing right by other people, as well as myself, that I really started to feel that guilt go away. So I don't have a problem going to sleep at night. I feel good when I wake up in the morning."

That’s bully for you that you don’t have a problem going to sleep at night, Mr. Wahlberg. You know who probably does? Thanh Lam, the Vietnamese man you attacked in 1988, for no other reason than his being a “slanted-eyed gook,” as you later told police. It’s probably difficult for Thanh Lam to go see your movies, with his only having one eye and all, but I bet when he sees you the first thing that pops into his mind is, “Damn, I hope that guy no longer feels burdened by guilt. I hope he feels good about himself when he wakes up in the morning.”

I’m quoting Wahlberg’s Wikipedia page not because I consider Wikipedia a paragon of journalistic accuracy (although all of this information is easily verifiable in criminal records and news articles related to these incidents), nor because I believe Wahlberg should forever be penalized for mistakes he made in his youth, no matter how horrible they were. I’m not of the school of thought that believes celebrities like Woody Allen and Bill Cosby and Conor Oberst should be penalized and flayed by the court of public opinion until the day they die, no matter how much one personally believes in their culpability, based on allegations that are as yet unproven in a court of law.

But the thing is, Wahlberg’s crimes were proven in a court of law; in fact, he freely confessed to them, boasting to police of his attacks on “slanted-eye gooks” and ultimately serving 45 days of a two-year prison sentence for the assault. But whenever I bring up Wahlberg’s history of racially motivated hate crimes to others, approximately only 20 percent of people know about them, approximately 50 percent of which fall into the camp of “who cares, it happened 20 years ago, he was a kid, get over it.”

And I’m bringing up Wahlberg’s Wikipedia entry to prove how unbelievably easy it is for people to find this information about him, to the point where it’s literally posted at the top of the most popular online resource in the world (it also made an appearance on a Buzzfeed listicle earlier this month, which is sadly about as reliable a journalistic source as Wikipedia is these days). And I bring it up to prove how poorly it reflects on the majority of his fans, on Hollywood, and the producers of Nickelodeon’s Kids Choice Awards that we make a concentrated effort to forget about it.

When it comes to Wahlberg’s history of hate crimes, we seem to be suffering from a bizarre form of selective cultural amnesia, which leads us to cherry-pick which celebrities should be held accountable for their behavior and which ones should not. This amnesia is particularly bizarre given the recent push toward investigating high-profile celebrities’ alleged criminal behavior, from Allen’s daughter’s molestation allegations to Cosby’s history of date rape accusations.

There have been a number of think pieces spawned by this trend, some of which are more thoughtful and even-keeled than others. For the most part, their takeaway has been for entertainment consumers to be conscientious of their favorite artists’ pasts, and if they find any evidence of behavior that doesn’t jibe with their own personal set of right and wrong then they must decide for themselves whether they’re able to separate the art from the man, and enjoy the work on its own terms.

This is an interesting and valuable discussion, and it’s one that people should keep having, long after the news cycle has progressed beyond the celebrities in question. But it’s useful for us to start thinking about which celebrities get the Woody Allen/Bill Cosby/R. Kelly retrospective investigative treatment, and which ones get a pass.

We should be asking ourselves: These celebrities whose pasts we’re looking into, do they tend to belong to a specific race? Gender? Ethnic minority? Have they historically enjoyed less power than men like Wahlberg, who despite hailing from a blue-collar background, is a conventionally attractive Caucasian male with an estimated net worth of $200 million? And if these answers are both affirmative, what does that say about us and our priorities as a culture?

To be clear, I am not arguing that Mark Wahlberg gets a pass from the media because he is white, and R. Kelly doesn’t because he is black; comparing Kelly’s alleged crimes to Wahlberg’s confessed ones is obviously apples and oranges, and it’s reductive and irrational to draw legitimate parallels between the two. Furthermore, I think for the most part the positive public attitude toward Wahlberg (in contrast to the largely negative one toward Kelly) is more out of ignorance of his crimes than a willful desire to sweep them under the rug. As I said before, I informally polled dozens of people to ask if they were aware that Wahlberg had beaten a Vietnamese man nearly to death and chased black children down the street screaming “Kill the n----rs,” and probably 80 percent did not.

Rather, I am addressing the other 20 percent, the producers and directors and Nickelodeon network executives, who know of Wahlberg’s history and choose to hire him for their projects regardless. Wahlberg himself is far more open about his past than the entertainment journalists who write puff pieces about him are, and has addressed it in a number of interviews.

There is absolutely no way that the Nickelodeon network executives who approached him to host the Kids Choice Awards, to clown around and get slimed for the entertainment of millions of children around the world, had no idea of the hate Wahlberg had in his heart, and the stomach-churning crimes he committed, when he himself was a child. To know of his past and to approach him regardless is akin to asking 2010-era Mel Gibson to voice one of the title characters in Mr. Peabody and Sherman. The only difference is the amount of time that’s elapsed between the two parties’ crimes.

Of course, the fact that Wahlberg assaulted his victim as a teenager and Gibson did as an adult is not a minor detail. It is certainly possible that Wahlberg has evolved considerably in his attitudes toward racial minorities since then, and we have no reason to not accept his remorse for his actions at face value. And hosting the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards is not quite akin to being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Golden Globes, which is what prompted the resurgence of the molestation accusations against Woody Allen: It doesn’t quite have the same value as a badge of cultural import.

But to those who would argue that Wahlberg’s upcoming gig has absolutely no impact on the culture at large: Imagine, if you will, being a Vietnamese child, or an African-American child, and tuning into the Kids’ Choice Awards. Imagine being fairly computer-savvy and having a wireless connection, and logging onto Wikipedia during the show. Imagine being fairly thoughtful and sensitive and introspective, and reading that section on Wahlberg’s history of violent assaults against someone that looks just like you. And imagine turning back to the TV and seeing that man you’ve just read about, laughing and joking and getting covered with green slime, and knowing that he wakes up every morning “feeling good.”

Photo by Eva Rinaldi Live Music and Celebrity Photographer/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)