Revolutionary State of Mind

As marijuana legalization has failed on its own terms, its proponents must be regarded as revolutionary cultists. The post Revolutionary State of Mind appeared first on The American Conservative.

Marijuana is the idol and emblem of a movement and a cult. It is not just a drug, and its enthusiasts, though nowadays they have a lot of money, are no mere lobby. Try to fight them, and you will see what I mean. I have been doing so for more than a decade and I have not even scratched their paintwork. It is quite obvious when you think about it.  By the time I was at college in England, more than 50 years ago, the use of dope was very nearly universal in my generation. I was almost alone among my fellow students, at the fashionable new University of York in northern England, who was not a regular user. And this was because I was that rare thing in those times, a puritan. As a serious Bolshevik revolutionary, I would do nothing to attract the attention of the police. And in any case, we believed that the proper response to an unjust world was to overthrow its institutions and replace them with our own, not to stupefy ourselves into dozy contentment. 

Our planned revolution, an Edwardian-style seizure of power based upon an angry, organized working class led by a revolutionary party, would in fact flop utterly. The very idea of a proletariat became absurd. Even as we conspired and propagandized, the revolutionary movement was shifting and transforming itself into a vast all-embracing attack on the existing Christian culture of the Western nations. And as it turned out, drugs were a central part of that, alongside a complete transformation of sexual morality and family life. Their actual revolution, whose slogan was “Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll” rather than “Workers of All Lands Unite” would succeed beyond all measure.  

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There is an astonishing passage in Ian McDonald’s clever book on the songs of the Beatles, Revolution in the Head, that explains this. MacDonald wrote of the 1969 song “Come Together” that “enthusiastically received in campus and underground circles, ‘Come Together’ is the key song of the turn of the decade, isolating a pivotal moment when the free world’s coming generation rejected established wisdom, knowledge, ethics, and behavior for a drug-inspired relativism which has since undermined the foundations of Western culture.”  

Allan Bloom, in his once-celebrated, now forgotten The Closing of the American Mind, made a similar connection between the effect of drugs and their ally, the new music. He said, 

In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs—and gotten over it—find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectations. 

It is as though the color has been drained out of their lives and they see everything in black and white. The pleasure they experienced in the beginning was so intense that they no longer look for it at the end or as the end. 

They may function perfectly well, but dryly, routinely. Their energy has been sapped, and they do not expect their life’s activity to produce anything but a living, whereas liberal education is supposed to encourage the belief that the good life is the pleasant life and that the best life is the most pleasant life. 

He then made a metaphorical connection between the drugs and the music that goes so closely with them, saying that, as long as they listen to the music on their headphones, “They cannot hear what the Great Tradition has to say. After its prolonged use, when they take it off, they find that they are deaf.” Drugs destroy the old landscape of literature and art, and leave blighted minds craving different sorts of satisfaction. 

I can remember this going on, the invasion of our young lives by a music so utterly distinct from anything that had gone before that it was as if some sort of euphoric substance had been put in the air and the water.  We thought we could hear the Chimes of Freedom flashing, and there was no doubt at all that marijuana was part of this mystical re-evaluation of the world. I recall it more clearly perhaps because I consciously rejected it around the age of 19, turning instead towards Beethoven’s symphonies and the Marxist classics. For me, Petrograd in 1917 took the place of Jerusalem, the source of the world’s most profound myth and of mankind’s most exalted aims. I confess this frankly rather bizarre set of beliefs to explain how it came to be that I was not interested in the phony Holy Communion of the shared marijuana joint, reverently rolled in semi-darkness, ceremoniously lit, and then piously handed round the group of initiates, all of whom were knowingly breaking a law that in those days was sometimes still actually enforced. Who needed the Catacombs?   

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I thought I had something better than this, and in a way I did. At least my revolution concerned itself with reason, history, and a thirst for justice, however twisted and misdirected. Theirs was just the ultimate expression of self-pity, the poor bruised soul soothed by the sweet fumes of tetrahydrocannabinol. And by the time I realized I did not have anything better after all, I was adult enough to be suspicious of the drug culture anyway. 

It was in the course of trying to combat the campaign for marijuana legalization, over many years, that it came to me that I was not challenging reasonable opponents but fanatics and zealots. I would slog to some campus meeting, armed with carefully-researched facts, mostly about how the law against the possession of marijuana was not in fact enforced. And I would find my opponents, often obviously intelligent people, behaving as if I had never even opened my mouth. I might as well not have turned up. They simply repeated the false claim that I had rebutted, making no attempt to challenge my facts. The mythology of the persecution of drug abusers was an essential part of their lives. It was part of the case for legalization. Therefore it could not be abandoned. Therefore challenges to it must be ignored. What did it matter if it simply was not true? As for the strong circumstantial evidence, and the powerful correlations, which suggested that this might not be the moment to put such a drug on open sale, and to allow it to be advertised, this too was ignored as if it had not been said. Mental illness? There was more evidence that peanuts were dangerous to health (I have been told this in supposedly serious debates).  

Then there would be the “What About Alcohol?” segment of the discussion in which the presence of one disastrous legal poison was somehow stated to be an argument for the licensing of a second such poison. And finally we would reach “What About Portugal?” or “What About Amsterdam?” in an attempt to pretend that the legal changes in these places showed drugs to be harmless, claims now utterly exploded and never very firmly based. Even the Washington Post no longer believes the claims about Portugal and Amsterdam, and recently reported on the squalor and crime in both places. It is equally easy to discover that two civilized law-governed nations, Japan and South Korea, successfully discourage marijuana use by the simple method, formerly common in Western nations, of prosecuting and punishing its possession. But you will find this will make no difference either. The drug legalization advocates will perhaps giggle, but certainly change the subject.  It is as if our entire culture had decided to ignore Sir Richard Doll’s discoveries about cigarettes because smoking was so important to our culture.   

I am arguing against a fanatical faith with the weapons of reason, the very thing the “New Atheists” claim (in my view falsely) to be doing in their battle against Christian belief. But while anti-God diatribes and sermons won the New Atheists praise for their alleged courage, originality, and brio, I receive none of that. Like most other socially conservative positions, opposition to marijuana legalization is increasingly an embattled minority view, pretty much a heresy. I struggle to make the case on major broadcast media, and when I do I often find that the officially neutral presenter is (in practice) as opposed to me as the drug advocate against whom I am debating. But in this instance, the heretic wins no credit for his individuality, independence or defiance of fashion. Rather the reverse. 

Those who take up this cause are defying the spirit of the age. And, as so often in such matters, it helps to turn to one of the smarter and more honest thinkers of the new era, Aldous Huxley, to find out what is going on.  His Brave New World, an increasingly accurate prophecy of our hedonist, deliberately irrational and ignorant civilization, absolutely requires the fictional drug Soma to make it function. In a world where humans have learned to love their own servitude, the mind must be kept from fretting, doubting, experiencing or expressing discontent. Not only is Soma used to quell a riot among the lower orders, who end up simpering and embracing each other after the police soma sprays have done their work; it silences the questing minds of the elite too. Soma, Huxley explained, had “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects…there is always delicious Soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon.” 

Don’t you long for some? In Huxley’s world you could ingest it in the form of ice cream, and refusers were liable to end up in exile on the Falkland Islands. But you cannot get it. You will never be able to get it. Huxley suggested that biochemists, hugely subsidized by a drug-loving state, had somehow managed to make it harmless, but that must be a fantasy. It seems to me that the history of all mind-altering drugs suggests that they must exact a hard price for the artificial joy, and for the undeserved rewards, which they provide. But the advocates of drugs want this not to be so, and will not acknowledge that it is so. 

And now here comes the point at which the deep revolutionary nature of the marijuana legalization movement emerges. There may be a parallel elsewhere, but in Britain the moment came in London in the summer of 1967. This was around the time of the first rock festival at Monterey, prototype of hundreds of pseudo-religious gatherings of worshippers of the new morality which to me strongly resemble the services of a new religion. A significant member of the London counter-culture, John “Hoppy” Hopkins, was sent to prison in June of 1967, after being caught in possession of marijuana. He insisted on jury trial, knowing that he would as a result face a higher sentence if convicted, and used the occasion to proclaim that marijuana was harmless and that the laws against it should be greatly diluted. The jury found him guilty, and the judge sent him to prison for nine months (much less than the maximum ten years he could in theory have gotten), calling him “a pest to society.” 

Hopkins was a founder of the then influential magazine International Times, an organizer of the equally revolutionary UFO Club and a friend of many in the London world of drugs and music. His arrest and imprisonment created alarm among many fashionable and powerful marijuana users. They feared that the old establishment was at last taking the issue seriously, and they did not like that.  Hopkins’s conviction was swiftly followed by an “emergency meeting” in the back room of the Indica Bookshop, another small fortress of dope culture in the London of the time. There should be a painting of this occasion. 

Afterwards, a brilliant and witty young American then living in London, Steve Abrams, assembled the mighty coalition that would then set about informally destroying the United Kingdom’s laws against marijuana possession. Abrams was a member of a body that had read Brave New World, yet deliberately called itself the SOMA Research Association, and consciously pursued the aim of a hedonistic social revolution. Abrams recruited the superstar Paul McCartney to the campaign and, within a short time, had assembled a battalion of notables, including all four Beatles, the novelist Graham Greene, and a gallery of London’s great and good, to sign an advertisement in the London Times that was published to general amazement in that then-powerful newspaper, on July 24, 1967. It called for the evisceration of the marijuana laws. 

And here is the significant part. The call was heeded. Much of its program would be quite swiftly adopted—often de facto rather than de jure—by both major British political parties, the police and the courts. The key changes were that possession would be regarded far more lightly than trafficking and that marijuana would now be treated separately from (and more leniently than) the other bogeyman drugs, in those days heroin and LSD, and given a special classification of its own. This is the origin of the common false belief that this drug, many of whose users end up seriously mentally ill for life, is “soft.” It was also the beginning of a long salami-slicing process during which the actual penalties imposed for its possession grew so small they became invisible, and after that the police simply ceased to notice its presence at all. London in summertime now smells of marijuana. It was the moment at which modern Britain embraced the complex, contradictory view of drugs—that they are harmless, but that those who hurt themselves and others by their use should be treated as medical victims rather than punished as criminal transgressors; that those who use them should not have their lives ruined by criminal penalties, even though they may ruin their own lives and those of their families with drug abuse. This also goes with the elevation of the idea of “addiction” to official status, thus robbing all drug abusers of free will and undermining any attempt at deterrence. 

The defeatist language associated with these defeatist attitudes is often found in the mouths of people who regard themselves as political conservatives. They speak of “soft” drugs, of “addiction” and of “treatment,” quite unaware that by doing so they are spreading the propaganda of the enemy. Some of these also adopt the revolutionary slogan that the “War on Drugs” has “failed,” which requires the acceptance of the fiction that there has ever been any such war. Even Alex Berenson, whose book Tell Your Children has been a potent corrective to much public falsehood about marijuana, concluded that “decriminalization” of marijuana might be a reasonable compromise. Between what and what? 

Legalization has already failed on its own terms. The smiling promise that it would “take the drug out of the hands of criminal gangs” has not been fulfilled. Where it is legal, illegal, untaxed, unregulated, markets flourish alongside. All that has happened is that marijuana is now also in the hands of greedy businessmen, remarkably like the old “Big Tobacco” types we all claim to dislike so much. Any concession to this lobby is an abandonment of the rule of law and of common sense. Meanwhile, the circumstantial evidence of the dangers, mental illness, criminal violence, the ruin of families, grows—and remains circumstantial because no rich and powerful force has any interest in researching these miseries.  

Back in the 1960s, my generation thought we could have a Revolution in the Head. I remember it, the shiver of anticipated pleasure and longing, the Pied Piper’s enchanting tune luring us away from the dull and the workful, the dutiful and the ordinary. We thought it would free us. Many still think this and have not noticed, as they skip and dance through the grim gates of the new world, what is written above them—something about abandoning hope, though the lettering nowadays is much obscured by moss and decay—and how strangely dark it looks down there. 

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