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Rebecca Solnit: One Big Continent of Pain

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Some drug use is, of course, purely recreational, but even recreational drug use stimulates these economies of carnage. And then there are the overdoses of the famous and the unsung on prescription and illicit drugs. Tragic, but those dismembered and mutilated bodies the drug gangs deposit around Mexico are not just tragic, they're terrifying.

GNP: Gross National Pain and the Pain Export Economy

Mexico, my near neighbor, I have been trying to imagine the export economy of pain. What does it look like? I think it might look like air-conditioning. This is how an air conditioner works: it sucks the heat out of the room and pumps it into the air outside. You could say that air-conditioners don't really cool things down so much as they relocate the heat. The way the transnational drug economy works is a little like that: people in the U.S. are not reducing the amount of pain in the world; they're exporting it to Mexico and the rest of Latin America as surely as those places are exporting drugs to us.

In economics, we talk about "externalized costs": this means the way that you and I pick up the real cost of oil production with local and global ecological degradation or wars fought on behalf of the oil corporations. Or the way Walmart turns its employees into paupers, and we pick up the tab for their food stamps and medical care.

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With the drug economy, there are externalized traumas. I imagine them moving in a huge circulatory system, like the Gulf Stream, or old trade routes. We give you money and guns, lots and lots of money. You give us drugs. The guns destroy. The money destroys. The drugs destroy. The pain migrates, a phantom presence crossing the border the other way from the crossings we hear so much about.

The drugs are supposed to numb people out, but that momentary numbing effect causes so much pain elsewhere. There's a pain economy, a suffering economy, a fear economy, and drugs fuel all of them rather than making them go away. Think of it as another kind of GNP -- gross national pain -- though I don't know how you'd quantify it.

A friend of mine who's lived in Latin America for large parts of the last decade says that she's appalled to see people doing cocaine at parties she goes to in this country. I mentioned that to an anthropologist who was even bleaker in describing the cocaine migration routes out of the Andes and all the dead babies and exploited women she'd seen along the way.

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We've had movements to get people to stop buying clothes and shoes made in sweatshops, grapes picked by exploited farmworkers, fish species that are endangered, but no one's thought to start a similar movement to get people to stop consuming the drugs that cause so much destruction abroad.  

Picture middle-class people here stuffing the blood of campesinos up their noses. Picture poor people injecting the tears of other poor people into their veins. Picture them all smoking children's anguish. And imagine if we called it by name.  

America, #1 in Pain

I don't know why my country seems to produce so much misery and so much desire to cover it up under a haze of drugs, but I can imagine a million reasons. A lot of us just never put down roots or adapted to a society that's changing fast under us or got downsized or evicted or foreclosed or rejected or just move around a lot. This country is a place where so many people don't have a place, literally or psychologically. When you don't have anywhere to go with your troubles, you can conveniently go nowhere -- into, that is, the limbo of drugs and the dead-end that represents.

But there's something else front and center to our particular brand of misery. We are a nation of miserable optimists. We believe everything is possible and if you don't have it all, from the perfect body to profound wealth, the fault is yours. When people suffer in this country -- from, say, foreclosures and bankruptcies due to the destruction of our economy by the forces of greed -- the shame is overwhelming.  It's seen as a personal failure, not the failure of our institutions. Taking drugs to numb your shame also keeps you from connecting the dots and opposing what's taken you down.  

So when you're miserable here, you're miserable twice: once because you actually lost your home/job/savings/spouse/girlish figure and all over again because it's not supposed to be like that (and maybe thrice because our mainstream society doesn't suggest any possibility of changing the circumstances that produced your misery or even how arbitrary those circumstances are). I suspect that all those drugs are particularly about numbing a deep American sense of failure or of smashed expectations.

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Really, when you think of the rise of crack cocaine during the Reagan era, wasn't it an exact corollary to the fall of African-American opportunity and the disintegration of the social safety net? The government produced failure and insecurity, and crack buffered the results (and proved a boon to a burgeoning prison-industrial complex). Likewise, the drug-taking that exploded in the 1960s helped undermine the radical movements of that era. Drugs aren't a goad to action, but a deadening alternative to it. Maybe all those zombies everywhere in popular culture nowadays are trying to say something about that.

Here in the United States, there's no room for sadness, but there are plenty of drugs for it, and now when people feel sad, even many doctors think they should take drugs. We undergo losses and ordeals and live in circumstances that would make any sane person sad, and then we say: the fault was yours and if you feel sad, you're crazy or sick and should be medicated. Of course, now ever more Americans are addicted to prescription drugs, and there's always the old anesthetic of choice, alcohol, but there is one difference: the economics of those substances are not causing mass decapitations in Mexico.

Roads to Destruction and the Palace of the Dead

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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