Sunday, August 9, 2015

Credit Where Credit is Due, Part 2: Not With a Bong But a Whimper

A while back, I pointed out that it's refreshing to see one thing coming out of the Obama administration that makes sense.  Two, actually – or let's say one and one-half. The first is the normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba, and the “half” is the easing (but not total elimination – at least not yet) of prosecutorial zeal directed at users of marijuana. And some will say, well, this is, at long last, the “real Obama” -- returning to his roots as a community organizer, radical, liberal, outsider. Because, after all, six years in, what does he have to lose? He can offend anyone he wants to (and usually does) and get away with it, because he won't be running for office again, and maybe he wants to make a statement – especially one that will serve as contrast to his “inevitable” successor, namely Hillary Clinton, AKA Big Nurse. Maybe he simply wants to say that he hasn't totally sold out to the white male establishment. Whatever. I'd rather someone did the right thing for the wrong reasons than continue to do the wrong thing for whatever reasons. And in terms of the political and cultural distortions that have been a chronic infection in this society for decades, nothing stands out quite as starkly as marijuana “policy” and foreign policy when it comes to Cuba. They are holdovers from an earlier time; they were a mistake then, and they're even more of a mistake now. So pretty much any change is likely to be in the right direction – not that it will salvage the overall reputation of Obama & Co., but it will at least be part of his legacy. Just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, even a bad president can do something right now and then, if only by accident.

I dealt with the Cuba issue back in December -- on Christmas Eve, in fact.  So now we move on to the second of those small glimmerings of hope -- and, like the first, it is fraught with controversy, with the Republicans reliably being on the wrong side of the issue, nearly unanimously.  (Does this portend a conversion on my part?  Far from it!  I merely point out that even people who are wrong most of the time can occasionally get something right… and that people who have the right ideas at least some of the time can also be stuck in a quagmire of ignorance on other issues.)

The War on Marijuana -- where to begin?  And I call it that because it’s distinct from the War on Drugs… not that they aren’t both dismal failures.  When it comes to powerful opiates and other drugs, especially the ones concocted these days in secret laboratories and sold under any number of “groovy” or ironic names, but which seem capable of causing massive damage, there is, and always was, a grain of truth to the notion that society deserved some sort of “protection”, although what that was, and where in the cycle it needed to be applied, was another matter.  I will argue -- and I’m far from alone in this -- that drugs are, or should be, more of a public health issue than a legal issue, although when something has a sufficiently severe impact on public health then perhaps the law should step in (but again, in what way is open to discussion).  One suggestion, on the conceptual level, is that selling mystery drugs of unknown content and dosage, and with unknown side effects, is a form of fraud compounded by assault, and pretty much any libertarian would agree that it’s a proper role of government to guard against both fraud and assault.  On the other hand, selling something of known content (and therefore dosage), with known side effects, should be permitted if the side effects -- i.e. potential for damage -- are insufficient to deprive people of the freedom to acquire and use said substance, which would, I would say, be true in virtually all cases, if we are to call ourselves a free people.  This has been the policy vis-à-vis alcohol since the end of Prohibition (another dismal failure, with the only real winners being organized crime), and is certainly the policy for garden-variety tranquilizers, stimulants, and so forth (either prescription or non-prescription).  In these cases, substance “abuse” really is a public health problem, and is dealt with by counseling and extra-legal intervention.  It only gets “legal” when prescription drugs are falsely acquired (fraud again) or illegally sold (marginal assault). 

So, that’s one continuum -- call it the legal-to-justifiably-illegal continuum.  But even then, there is a maze of issues having to do with type and strength of drug (think:  cocaine in powder form vs. “crack”), type and severity of punishment, and who to blame.  It is this last factor that starts us down the road of socio-political-historical analysis.  For who is to blame if Person A sells something bad to Person B?  We commonly punish dealers more severely than addicts, but we still punish addicts; they are not just victims, but are to blame in some way -- but in what way?  If they were only making foolish decisions about their health (or financial situation) it would be an occasion for counseling.  And yet we have a way of punishing the “users” not just for doing something dangerous, but for displaying moral weakness or turpitude of some sort.  And this, in turn, is the product of a judgment on the part of not only the courts but of society in general -- there are weaknesses and vices that can be excused, and ones that can’t.  But what are the criteria?  Search as you might, you won’t find any that make any real sense.  It’s something that seems obvious because we live with it every day, and always have… but try dissecting it and you come up with a gaping hole.

My position (also not unique, but seldom expressed) is that we are dealing with a metaphysical problem -- an issue of reality, and whose reality is valid and whose is not.  And as in the religious wars of old, if your reality is invalid, it is insufficient to simply tell you so, or present you with alternatives, or even to prevent you from spreading your errors.  No, it is an occasion for punishment -- and what is our national heritage but that of a, basically, fanatical group of Protestants making camp on the shores of Massachusetts Bay in the name of their own religious freedom, only to turn around in short order and deny that same freedom to anyone else they could get their hands on?  This is the essence of Puritanism -- to “purify” not only one’s own life, belief system, and mode of worship, but to purify the world (or as much of it as possible) by relieving it of error -- or, failing that, relieving it of existence.  To the Puritan, there is no intrinsic right to life, nor is there a right to be wrong.  Being wrong, rather, disqualifies you from citizenship in the community, and may deprive you of life if you’re wrong enough.

And I submit that the War on Islam is precisely that -- i.e. it’s our Puritan heritage out in plain sight.  It’s the same attitude, pursued in the same way, with all accompanying dogma and propaganda.  It’s Puritanism for our time, when it comes to foreign policy. 

But domestic Puritanism is every bit as bad, if not worse.  And yes, Prohibition was an example, and it ran parallel with the first (unnamed) war on drugs -- again, treating the issue as a legal/criminal matter right off the bat rather than a matter of public health or fraud.  And since Prohibition turned out to be our greatest domestic folly to date (but nominations are still being accepted), you’d think we would have learned, but we didn’t.

See, the essence of any social system is to, first, define itself, and then, by logical extension, define The Other.  The Other is that which does not conform, and which, therefore, has to be detected, rooted out, banished, punished, incarcerated, killed… anything, in short, that reinforces its status and at the same time attempts to exterminate it.  And whatever makes us think that our society, with its vaunted “traditions of freedom”, is any different when it comes to this very basic, primordial need of social groups?  We may be a bit better in allowing for gray areas, but we are no less zealous when, once The Other is defined, tracking it down and dealing with it.  If we look carefully into our tradition of “tolerance” (now redefined as “diversity”) we find that it operates reasonably well within well-defined limits, but beyond those limits is no more to be found than among ignorant, warring tribes in the most remote places on earth.

Now, clearly, there are many dimensions across which to draw a line separating the good from the bad… the acceptable from the unacceptable… Us from Them.  Most of these dimensions are painfully familiar -- in our history and in the present day.  Think about race, religion, gender, sexual minorities, the handicapped, the diseased (mentally or physically), age, personal appearance… and many more.  It all adds up to reasons to give people a jolt -- to subject them to “correction”… and the “ideal” situation is typically not so much to exterminate (think: genocide) as to keep people around as second-class citizens (or worse -- think:  our enormous prison population).  To keep them around as reminders or bad examples -- at which the authorities can point and say, to the citizenry, "Don't be like that person... or else!" 

Now, in more traditional societies The Other is defined, as mentioned above, by fairly objective traits.  Strangers, aliens, foreigners… all people who might be normal somewhere, but they aren’t normal here, and that’s enough.  Even people who have different creeds -- different religious ideas -- at least belong to a known religion or sect.  It has a name, it has places of worship, it has a holy book, priests, rabbis, imams, preachers… whatever.  Our society, on the other hand, has a chronic dilemma when it comes to defining The Other, because, to begin with, we fancy ourselves free and open, and welcoming to any and all of the oppressed, needy, persecuted, etc. from around the world (“I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”).  Not only that, but we take great pride in the fact that, no matter where from or what their original beliefs and values were, people landing on our shores are eager to “assimilate”, and, by and large, have succeeded in doing so.  But even that narrative has fallen on hard times, with more and more immigrant groups preferring to remain themselves -- think Hispanics and Moslems. 

But, again, traditionally -- in most of our history -- people have jumped happily into the great American melting pot.  And yet human nature dictates that there must be The Other, and there’s the dilemma.  That’s the point at which we discover that there remain lumps in that melting pot -- that some people, habits, beliefs, etc. are not so amenable to homogenization.  So blacks, while freed, remained second-class citizens, as did Hispanics, Catholics, Orientals, and others.  Legally, there was no difference; pragmatically, they were worlds apart.  And this satisfied the requirements of the ruling elite and its acolytes… and those who didn’t measure up seldom objected, since they were still better off here than they would have been in most other places. 

But there was another level of alienation and division, and it was based on our status as an ideational society.  You could be, technically and legally, an American, and even behave as an American most of the time, but there was a further requirement, and an abstract one at that -- you had to “believe in” America the way people believe in a religion.  You had to be willing to, basically, worship an abstraction the way other people worship God, deities, a messiah, or even the stars and planets.  And part of believing in America was not just saluting the flag or singing the right songs on the right holidays or pledging the right pledges -- it was embracing the historic, social, and political reality of the culture, and forsaking all others.  Adopting and absorbing the narrative, in other words.  In a more typical society this step wouldn’t have been necessary, because people would have already made all the natural commitments that anyone could have expected them to make -- to race, ethnicity, tribe, religion, family, etc.  But in our society, these were all mere steppingstones… things that were only of value to the extent they were “supportive of” the overarching patriotic and nationalistic ideal.  (And anything not so supportive had to be lopped off and discarded, even as “identity politics” requires everyone to relinquish their cultural heritage, except for a few certified victim groups, and even their cultural heritage has to be sanitized beyond recognition.) 

But it doesn’t end there.  (Surely you didn’t expect otherwise!)  Ideas about America -- its God-given mission and destiny -- are one thing, but the thought-tyranny has to go even deeper, right down to people’s perceptions of reality in general.  (“Hate crimes” -- which are thought crimes by a different name -- are a recent invention; I’m talking about something that goes much further back.)  I’m not talking about the “mentally ill” here, because they are easily dismissed except for the most radical theorists.  (There may be some wisdom in madness -- there is certainly creativity there -- but it’s not typically a rich resource for a culture.)  I’m simply talking about the people who are in the world, and whose “reality testing” is sound enough most of the time, but feel that there is, or might be, something more, and who want the freedom to explore that possibility.  These are the people -- it turns out -- who were, back in the revolutionary 1960s, considered to be the most dangerous members of society… not the “draft dodgers” or war protesters… not the hard-core drug addicts… not the violent criminals… because, in some way, they shared the same overall perception of reality as most other people.  They were reading off the same sheet of metaphysical music, as it were.  No, it was the humble hippie with his long hair, beads, and bell bottoms who drove the establishment into a violent frenzy, simply because he refused to accept its version of reality; he had to find out for himself.  So the War on Marijuana, which had had racist overtones from the start, also acquired a new layer of Puritanism, persecution, and violence, and many were the hapless victims who were crushed under its wheel.   Suddenly it was no longer white vs. black, Protestant vs. Catholic, or any of the other traditional fault lines, but, most typically white vs. white -- or, Reality Type A vs. Reality Type B (or C, D, etc.). 

And did this new form of bigotry and persecution cause any uprising of protest among society at large?  Not a bit of it.  They were secretly (or not so secretly) glad to see the hippies “getting theirs” after daring to explore new metaphysical and epistemological horizons, and enjoying themselves in a most flagrant, unseemly manner.  (Who says the politics of envy is confined to minorities?)  So the establishment erupted in a show of totalitarian violence and cruelty possibly unmatched by any prior episode in our history, and certainly unmatched by anything that has happened since.  And while marijuana was not the only substance at issue, it was the most iconic because of what it had come to symbolize.  

To sum up, a racist society is hostile toward other races.  A theocracy is hostile toward other religions.  And an ideational society is hostile toward other ideas, but also toward notions of reality that are incompatible with the orthodoxy.  So in a paradoxical way, the hostility of an ideational society, even if the ideas involve “freedom”, goes deeper than the hostility of a more traditional society.  It goes, that is, right to the core of being… with how an individual identifies himself with respect to not only other individuals and society, but to reality in general… and, perhaps, to what he considers a greater, or higher, reality -- a hidden reality, perhaps, but one that is nonetheless real, and possibly more real than the one we are accustomed to, which may be illusory.  And this is the one thing an ideational society cannot tolerate.  It is an “existential threat”, not in the physical sense but in the philosophical one -- and if a few long-haired hippies could threaten the very foundations of our society by smoking a few joints, those foundations, and that society, must have been in a sorry state indeed -- in an advanced state of decay and deterioration -- which, some would have said back when the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, was very much the case.  We were as morally weak at that point as we have ever been, so it’s no coincidence that so many decided to “tune in, turn on, and drop out”, and that the reaction was so desperate and extreme.  The society -- the nation --  was crying out for help at that time, but all anyone heard, or wanted to hear, was gunfire and the sound of prison doors closing.


And yet, the conflict waned, but did not cease -- it continues to this day.  But the most radical elements faded, as radical elements always do, to be replaced by day-to-day functionaries with no theories, just habits.  People turned to other things -- from exhaustion or, perhaps, sheer love of novelty over principle.  And the system had other things on its mind as well.  The war in Vietnam -- that great engine of the 1960s and early 1970s -- ended ignominiously, the hippies left the cities and retired to farms and communes across the countryside, and disco took over (funny how a culture can degenerate in the twinkling of an eye).  There was a truce of sorts when it came to the reality question -- not quite up to the standard of tolerance or “live and let live”, but better than open warfare.  But the system survived intact… people stayed in jail… irrational laws stayed on the books.  But a new cultural gray area had developed, populated by “new age” types who weren’t as engaged in open rebellion so much as cultural revolution of a generally quiet and gradual kind.  And this seems, at long last, to have borne fruit in the form of relaxed restrictions on marijuana, or even doing away with them altogether.

And I have to admit, I find all of this astonishing in view of the sordid history of the matter.  I always felt that the only way marijuana was going to be legalized would be by way of revolution (call it “regime change”), with blood flowing in the streets.  After all, that’s what took to eliminate slavery, right?  And yet it turned out to be more gradual, not unlike the campaign for women’s suffrage and child labor laws, and -- in our time -- for civil rights of many other varieties.  And of course the perennial question has to be, why did it take so long?  Why couldn’t courageous leaders at the national and state level have done something about this years or decades sooner?  The answer -- as in so many cases -- is that revolution does not -- can not -- come from above, but has to arise from the people.  It’s tempting to think that attitudes at the top changed, but it’s more likely that the mind of the people changed, and that the leadership is merely going wherever the wind blows.  The difference, I suppose, is that this can be done with an attitude of stubbornness, resentment, and foot-dragging (“kicking and screaming“), or it can be done with a more open mind and with respect for the wisdom of the people, and that is what seems to be happening in this case.  So without giving Obama & Co. more credit that they deserve -- they are politicians, after all -- we can at least give them credit for having a light hand, and for allowing certain things to happen, much the way we gave Gorbachev credit for not struggling mightily against the dissolution of the Soviet Union, even if he didn’t especially care for what was going on.  And if they are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, doesn’t that beat doing the wrong thing for… pretty much any reason? 

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