Friday, October 05, 2007

Prime Minister criticizes the culture!

I've been reading various reports and criticisms (see 1, 2, 3, 4)
of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new "anti-drug strategy" - his announcement of a modest increase in spending to combat illegal narcotic use. The critics, it seems, are either up in arms because Harper has not come up with the key to reducing drug addiction, while pretending he can do something about it, or because he proposes to give a third of his new $64 million to enforcement of laws and not all of the money to prevention/treatment/"harm reduction" programs of the kind administered by the various experts the MSM interviews. Filling our jails with drug pushers/users will just create the same mess they have in America, we are told (see link 4), but will not stop actual drug use. For example, Harper, while trying to draw a line between drug users and dealers, says nothing about how his government will treat with the reality that many people are both:
(link 3) Speaking in Winnipeg, Harper promised to be compassionate toward people hooked on illegal drugs, while expressing skepticism about Vancouver's controversial supervised-injection site.

In particular, the prime minister said he is concerned about rising drug use among youth. He also noted that drug use takes an expensive toll on the health care system and fuels crime.

Harper said the government's response will be two-pronged, focusing on drug addicts on one hand and on drug producers and dealers on the other.

"Drugs are dangerous and destructive. If drugs do get hold of you, there will be help to get you off them," Harper promised. "But if you sell or produce drugs, you will pay with prison time."

"Our two-track approach will be tough on the dealers and producers of drugs and compassionate for their victims."
It may be right that Harper is avoiding difficult questions. But I still think you've got to like the man. Drug addiction is a problem to which no one has an obvious solution. But if there is one it surely must start with ordinary people making it clear to everyone they know that drug abuse is not cool or desirable. It has to start with a culture shift, a new national covenant, a new spirituality for many lost souls, and we can't expect Harper to do much more than encourage the rest of us to start shifting. And, in face of an impending election campaign, Harper has the nerve to say this to a nation in which it is clear that many people (especially here in Vancouver) think drug use is acceptable and cool:
(link2) Canada has become too drug-friendly and it's time for a culture change, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said yesterday as he laid out his government's get-tough strategy for reducing the use of illegal substances.

Police and others fighting the battle against drug abuse are up against a culture that "since the 1960s" has done little to discourage drug abuse and "often romanticized it - romanticized it or made it cool, made it acceptable," Mr. Harper said.

"As a father I don't say all these things blamelessly. My son is listening to my Beatles records and asking me what all these lyrics mean. It's just there, it's out there. I love these records and I'm not putting them away. But, that said, there has been a culture that has not fought drug use and that's what we're all up against."
Whatever you think of his policy, one might have a kind thought for a politician who says what he thinks, without all kinds of hemming and hawing to come up with saccharine formulae aimed at pleasing the greatest possible number of voters. I do think, however, that Harper needs to tell his son more about the Gnostic fantasies of the Beatles. One might start with literary scholar Matthew Schneider:
it was to the busy pop-art of Sgt. Pepper, supposedly the first album completed after Paul's death, that Beatle fanatics turned for the lion's share of clues [on Paul McCartney's supposedly hidden death]. On the back cover, for instance, George Harrison stands with his right index finger inexplicably outstretched. Closer examination shows that it points to a line from the song "She's Leaving Home": "Wednesday morning at five o'clock as the day begins." Moving to the column immediately to the left, the corresponding line, from "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," is "Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly." The column to the right reads "life goes on within you and without you," and the next column yields "And you're on your own you're in the street." Adherents of the "Paul is Dead" theory assembled these juxtaposed lines into an account of an accident in the early morning, a mortally injured Paul lying alone in the street unable to speak, and the Beatles going on without their fallen friend.

Also on the back cover, the three Beatles other than Paul face forward; Paul stands with his back to the camera, supposedly to indicate his non-presence. On the inside of the sleeve is a large photograph of the four smiling Beatles in their brightly colored Sgt. Pepper band uniforms. On Paul's left sleeve, where on a military uniform one might find a rank insignia, is a patch that reads "O.P.D." "Paul is Dead" theoreticians argue that this patch is an abbreviation for "Officially Pronounced Dead," the British equivalent of the American phrase "dead on arrival." And in the song "A Day in the Life," the theoreticians contend, John Lennon tells of the auto accident that took his bandmate's life:

He blew his mind out in a car
He didn't notice that the lights had changed.
A crowd of people stood and stared.
They'd seen his face before.
Nobody was really sure if he was from the House of Lords.

This combination of sortilege and close reading--typical of "Paul is dead" evidentiary reasoning--illustrates my point with particular clarity. Conspiracy theorizing is a mode of Gnosticism that can be counted on to arise spontaneously in the presence of any spatially or chronologically linked sequence of events lacking a self-evident originator and purpose. As it did on the originary scene [the originary scene, in Generative Anthropology, is the hypothetical first scene of human language where symbolic representation first "magically" emerged], the mind abhors the cognitive vacuum of [symbolic and spiritual] effects without causes; and where those causes are not glaringly apparent (and sometimes even where they are), a story will be concocted to account for them. To John Lennon (who ought to know) Hugh Schonfield was the unacknowledged master theorist of Beatlemania, for this shy and retiring Oxford don quite unintentionally, but accurately, pointed to the mythopoetic potentialities lurking in contemporary celebrity worship. Sadly, Lennon little suspected, as he sprinkled his songs and album covers with tantalizing details, that he would someday be the subject of his own son's hazy conspiracy theory, which emerges as the nightmarish incarnation of the myths woven in this media-saturated age around our celebrities. The deluge of information that both creates and is created by the mechanisms of contemporary celebrity falls sequentially into the ubiquitous scene of public representation. The jumble of evanescent images, publicity, rumor, anecdote, and conflicting eyewitness testimony that surrounds celebrities cries out to be arranged into a story that makes sense, a narrative. The more information that accumulates, the more conspiratorial or paranoid the narrative, as all the details need to be accounted for. But this is nothing new. René Girard has taught us that all myths are, to a degree, conspiratorial: by making the surrogate victim [e.g. a politician everyone blames] both the cause and the solution of the sacrificial crisis, myths mingle naïve faith with paranoid suspicion. I couldn't ask for a better illustration of the essential similarity between contemporary conspiracy theorizing and ancient myth than the last few sentences of the quotation from Sean Lennon with which I began this essay. Both conspiracy theory and myth say that "the system," in the final analysis, both does and doesn't achieve its nefarious ends: "It was in the best interests of the United States to have my dad killed, definitely. And, you know, that worked against them, to be honest, because once he died his powers grew. So, I mean, fuck them. They didn't get what they wanted."
Similarly, there are in today's newspapers all kinds of experts pronouncing on cause and effect in respect the mysteries of drug addiction. There are all kinds of people scapegoating Stephen Harper (like many politicians before) for adding to the problem as part of a loosely-hidden agenda to win votes by voicing the appealing rhetoric of getting tough on crime. But there are some problems on which a sober mind will resist easy finger pointing. It seems to me that the best one can say about things like the addictive personality is that the mystery of cause and effect lies with questions of good and bad faith.

Long story short, do we as a culture have the faith that we can tell young people that the myths that drug use is a form of cool opposition to, or useful coping with, the oppressive system is a bad myth - the myth that you will never be more ecstatic than when on Ecstasy? and can we replace it with a truth that sets people free by allowing them to put their faith in the system, given all the pressures and demands that the modern free market economy and bureaucratic state really do make on people? If we pursue the question I think we will see that our system can only renew itself, and not allow so many of its young people to ruin their lives with drugs, if it recognizes that faith in the system has to involve spiritual commitments and covenants that are not themselves reducible to the instrumental logic of the economy and bureaucracies of our land. If Harper offers little it is because big things can only start with humble leaps of faith. And we need more leaders who will say as much without just throwing money at "scientific" experts and solutions. And then it is up to the rest of us, it is the job of our civil society - and not at root the government - to help our family, friends, acquaintances, to find a faith in the future without drugs. Since no one or no family, and certainly no bureaucracy, can do much alone, it is a question for civil society and culture at large. Can we share a commitment to renewing the covenant? Or are we going to forever bitch that the latest government policy has no hope of seriously addressing the problem? Because no government policy alone is ever conceivably going to solve the drug addiction problem. It can only start with us.

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