Saturday, January 04, 2014

Pardon me, but David Brooks should stick a bong up his ass

By Michael J.W. Stickings

One of the best responses to David Brooks's remarkably stupid column against marijuana legalization comes from The Nation's Michelle Goldberg, who writes this:

Brooks's lament about marijuana legalization is astonishing in its blindness to ruined lives and the human stakes of a serious policy debate. Somehow, he's written a whole column about the drug war that doesn't once contain the words "arrest" or "prison." It's evidence not just of his own writerly weakness but of the way double standards in the war on drugs shield elites from reckoning with its consequences.

And the obvious problem, except to lazy pontificators like Brooks, is that the "war on drugs" highly disproportionately targets non-whites. Rich white guys, or even just most white guys, smoke pot and get away with it. Not so much, say, blacks. And so Brooks's argument that marijuana should remain illegal because it doesn't promote "temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship" is self-absorbed bullshit. It's the sort of bullshit I used to hear a lot of when I was a Straussian graduate student, when the cult of the ancients prevailed and we would distinguish ourselves from the nihilistic postmodern world around us by aspiring, at least in speech, to what we pretentiously thought of as higher form of citizenship, the sort of which Socrates might approve. (Actually, I thought this was bullshit back then as well, a simplistic perversion of Strauss's teachings, and I recoiled from it.) But I digress...

It's not that I object to "temperate, prudent, self-government citizenship." Liberal democracies require it to some degree, and it's when citizenship is perverted, when, say, we become consumers instead of citizens, that our democratic rights wither and we basically lose the capacity for self-government and indeed of enlightenment generally.

But it's ridiculous to connect this to marijuana use, unless of course Brooks wishes to ban alcohol as well, which is also ridiculous. Our concept of citizenship allows for a great deal of individual choice and freedom, and people in a free society should be allowed to do things that do not harm others and indeed in a free society the burden is on the government, the government of the people, to show that something is harmful and so should not be permitted. Driving 100 mph through a residential area or physically assaulting someone qualifies as something harmful or so potentially harmful that it is in society's interests to try to prevent it. Smoking pot doesn't. Not even close. You can smoke pot and be anything but a threat to others. You can also smoke pot and be a good citizen. But even if you smoke pot and don't vote, which I hardly recommend, so what? It's a free fucking country. No?

Back to Goldberg's piece:

When it comes to marijuana legalization, then, the pertinent question is not whether smoking lots of pot is good for you. It's whether we should be arresting minorities en masse for using a substance that many if not most of our elites -- even Brooks! -- have at one time or another enjoyed with impunity. "In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom," writes Brooks. "But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be." Being incarcerated also makes it a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be. The wildly unequal way our drug policy is enforced ensure that Brooks wouldn't know anything about that. His shortcomings as a columnist ensure that he can't be bothered to learn. 

Brooks, like many other such pundits, sees nothing beyond his own thoughts and experiences. Sure, he may in theory be able to contemplate what another perspective might be, but it's really just about him. He smoked pot, now he thinks it's bad because it doesn't fit in which his view of citizenship, so it should remain illegal. End of column. This isn't just self-absorption. It's myopic self-regard taken to an almost psychopathic extreme, however couched in the pretentious elitism of the New York Times columnist and "serious thinker" persona he inhabits.

Now, his argument could be that drug laws should simply be more fairly enforced, reducing if not eliminating the racial divide that Goldberg addresses. To the extent that there are drug laws, fine. If you get caught trafficking heroin, say, it shouldn't matter the color of your skin, though it would be pretty unrealistic to suggest that the "war on drugs" could ever be waged in a fair and equitable way, as if everyone, white or black, rich or poor, whatever, would be treated the same way. Sorry, that's just America, where race and money still matter a whole lot. (Just look at one David Brooks.)

But the point is that much of the "war on drugs" is simply insane, particularly when it comes to marijuana, which, again, is pretty much on the level of alcohol. (Ever been to, oh, an NFL game? Think alcohol doesn't turn citizens into fucking idiots? Or how about anything else that doesn't promote temperance and prudence, like, say, sexual desire. Should we ban that too in our moralistic quest for perfect Brooksian citizenship?) Instead of doubling down and enforcing those laws, which would only exacerbate the prison problem along with myriad other social problems, why not just do away with those laws that serve no reasonable purpose?

I'm willing to grant for now that some drugs should be illegal, but again the burden must be on the government, on us,  to show that Drug A is so dangerous that it serves the common good to illegalize it. Should ecstasy be illegal, then? Or cocaine? We can have those discussions, but in this case it is abundantly clear that marijuana is a relatively safe substance that causes little to no harm either to oneself or to others, as well as to society generally, and that therefore should be legal.

That may not be to David Brooks's liking -- he's "been there, done that," to quote the title of his odious column, though of course he's never, say, faced significant racial bias in the criminal justice system, tried on spurious charges, been unable to afford a good defense lawyer, and been sent to prison for years for simple drug possession -- but I'm pretty sure American citizenship, which faces a far greater threat from corporate plutocracy and mindless consumerism than from harmless drug use, is strong enough to withstand some people choosing to get high every now and then.

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