On being surprised by a joy so astonishingly sweet, I assumed that it must be forbidden, and if by the light of day I'd come too close to leaning against the sun with seraphs swinging snowy hats, by nightfall I felt bound to check into the nearest cage, drunkenness being the one most conveniently at hand. Around midnight at Elaine's, a saloon on Second Avenue in Manhattan that in those days catered to a clientele of actors, writers, and other assorted con artists playing characters of their own invention, I could count on the company of fellow travelers outward or inward bound on the roads of perilous transmigration. No matter what their reason for a timely departure—whether to obliterate the fear of failure, delete the thought of wife and home, reconfigure a mistaken identity, project into the future the birth of an imaginary self—all present were engaged in some sort of struggle between the force of life and the will to death. Thanatos and Eros seated across from each other over the backgammon board on table four, the onlookers suspending the judgment of ridicule and extending the courtesy of tolerance.
Alcohol serves at the pleasure of the players on both sides of the game, its virtues those indicated by Seneca and Martin Luther, its vices those that the novelist Marguerite Duras likens, as did Hamlet, to the sleep of death: "Drinking isn't necessarily the same as wanting to die. But you can't drink without thinking you're killing yourself." Alcohol's job is to replace creation with an illusion that is barren. "The words a man speaks in the night of drunkenness fade like the darkness itself at the coming of day."
The observation is in the same despairing minor key as Billie Holiday's riff on heroin: "If you think dope is for kicks and thrills you're out of your mind. There are more kicks to be had in a good case of paralytic polio and living in an iron lung. If you think you need stuff to play music or sing, you're crazy. It can fix you so you can't play nothing or sing nothing." She goes on to say that in Britain the authorities at least have the decency to treat addiction as a public health problem, but in America, "if you go to the doctor, he's liable to slam the door in your face and call the cops."
Humankind's thirst for intoxicants is unquenchable.
Humankind's thirst for intoxicants is unquenchable, but to criminalize it, as Lincoln reminded the Illinois temperance society, reinforces the clinging to the addiction; to think otherwise would be "to expect a reversal of human nature, which is God's decree and never can be reversed." The injuries inflicted by alcohol don't follow "from the use of a bad thing, but from the abuse of a very good thing." The victims are "to be pitied and compassionated," their failings treated "as a misfortune, and not as a crime or even as a disgrace."
The War on Drugs as a War Against Human Nature
Whether declared by church or state, the war against human nature is by definition lost. The Puritan inspectors of souls in 17th-century New England deplored even the tentative embrace of Bacchus as "great licentiousness," the faithful "pouring out themselves in all profaneness," but the record doesn't show a falling off of attendance at Boston's 18th-century inns and taverns. The laws prohibiting the sale and manufacture of alcohol in the 1920s discovered in the mark of sin the evidence of crime, but the attempt to sustain the allegation proved to be as ineffectual as it was destructive of the country's life and liberty.
Instead of resurrecting from the pit a body politic of newly risen saints, Prohibition guaranteed the health and welfare of society's avowed enemies. The organized-crime syndicates established on the delivery of bootleg whiskey evolved into multinational trade associations commanding the respect that comes with revenues estimated at $2 billion per annum. In 1930 alone, Al Capone's ill-gotten gains amounted to $100 million.
So again with the war that America has been waging for the last 100 years against the use of drugs deemed to be illegal. The war cannot be won, but in the meantime, at a cost of $20 billion a year, it facilitates the transformation of what was once a freedom-loving republic into a freedom-fearing national security state.
The policies of zero tolerance equip local and federal law-enforcement with increasingly autocratic powers of coercion and surveillance (the right to invade anybody's privacy, bend the rules of evidence, search barns, stop motorists, inspect bank records, tap phones) and spread the stain of moral pestilence to ever larger numbers of people assumed to be infected with reefer madness—anarchists and cheap Chinese labor at the turn of the twentieth century, known homosexuals and suspected Communists in the 1920s, hippies and anti-Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s, nowadays young black men sentenced to long-term imprisonment for possession of a few grams of short-term disembodiment.
If what was at issue was a concern for people trapped in the jail cells of addiction, the keepers of the nation's conscience would be better advised to address the conditions—poverty, lack of opportunity and education, racial discrimination—from which drugs provide an illusory means of escape. That they are not so advised stands as proven by their fond endorsement of the more expensive ventures into the realms of virtual reality. Our pharmaceutical industries produce a cornucopia of prescription drugs—eye-opening, stupefying, mood-swinging, game-changing, anxiety-alleviating, performance-enhancing—currently at a global market-value of more than $300 billion.
So again with the war that America has been waging for the last 100 years against the use of drugs deemed to be illegal. The war cannot be won.
Add the time-honored demand for alcohol, the modernist taste for cocaine, and the uses, as both stimulant and narcotic, of tobacco, coffee, sugar, and pornography, and the annual mustering of consummations devoutly to be wished comes to the cost of more than $1.5 trillion. The taking arms against a sea of troubles is an expenditure that dwarfs the appropriation for the military budget.
Given the American antecedents both metaphysical and commercial—Thomas Paine drank, "and right freely"; in 1910, the federal government received 71 percent of its internal revenue from taxes paid on the sale and manufacture of alcohol—it is little wonder that the sons of liberty now lead the world in the consumption of better living through chemistry. The new and improved forms of self-invention fit the question—to be, or not to be—to any and all occasions.
For the aging Wall Street speculator stepping out for an evening to squander his investment in Viagra. For the damsel in distress shopping around for a nose like the one seen advertised in a painting by Botticelli. For the distracted child depending on a therapeutic jolt of Adderall to learn to read the Constitution. For the stationary herds of industrial-strength cows so heavily doped with bovine growth hormone that they require massive infusions of antibiotic to survive the otherwise lethal atmospheres of their breeding pens. Visionary risk-takers, one and all, willing to chance what dreams may come on the way West to an all-night pharmacy.
The war against human nature strengthens the fear of one's fellow man. The red, white, and blue pills sell the hope of heaven made with artificial sweeteners.
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly, and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Intoxication," the Winter 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.