It started out as a metaphor: "the war on drugs." But it became ever more dismayingly real as time passed, initially as a fierce assault on young black men who ended up in jail in outrageous numbers. More recently, it's coming to seem ever more like a grim description of onrushing reality, an actual war, which shouldn't surprise anyone living in a country that now has the habit of militarizing just about everything from hurricane relief to foreign aid.
These days, south of the border, U.S. drones are flying intelligence missions; the CIA is getting shot at by the Mexican police; Pentagon civilian employees and private contractors have settled into a Mexican military base; the U.S. ambassador to that country arrived directly from his previous assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan; and rumors about the possibility of sending in U.S. special operations forces to take out Mexican drug kingpins (- la Osama bin Laden) are now circulating. And don't forget the way the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives armed Mexican drug gangs thanks to "Operation Fast and Furious," its movie-title-inspired disaster of a "gunwalking" set of sting operations.
Meanwhile, in Central America, there's been a flurry of war-on-drugs military construction work from the Pentagon. In addition, a Drug Enforcement Agency team, "originally created to disrupt the poppy trade in Afghanistan," has been at work in Honduras, guns drawn, killing locals (including pregnant women). The Pentagon has also been ramping up its anti-drug operations in Honduras, and Green Berets have been assisting their Honduran counterparts in the field. In fact, the Pentagon has been building new bases there specifically "patterned on the forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that gave troops a small, secure home on insurgent turf" to fight a drug war based, reports the New York Times, on the "lessons of Iraq."
Of course, my limited understanding of the "lessons" of Iraq and Afghanistan is: don't do it! But what do I know when so many knowledgeable military-minded types are already promoting a war in the neighborhood? And what could the famed former editor of Harper's Magazine Lewis Lapham know when he points out that our drug "wars" are dulling our good sense, while encouraging our country to become ever more security mad and locked down? All he does, after all, is edit Lapham's Quarterly, which, four times a year, brilliantly unites some of the most provocative and original voices in history around a single topic. (You can subscribe to it by
Why the War on Drugs Is a War on Human Nature
By Lewis Lapham
[This essay will appear in "Intoxication," the Winter 2012 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]- Advertisement -
The question that tempts mankind to the use of substances controlled and uncontrolled is next of kin to Hamlet's: to be, or not to be, someone or somewhere else. Escape from a grievous circumstance or the shambles of an unwanted self, the hope of finding at a higher altitude a new beginning or a better deal. Fly me to the moon, and let me play among the stars; give me leave to drown my sorrow in a quart of gin; wine, dear boy, and truth.
That the consummations of the wish to shuffle off the mortal coil are as old as the world itself was the message brought by Abraham Lincoln to an Illinois temperance society in 1842. "I have not inquired at what period of time the use of intoxicating liquors commenced," he said, "nor is it important to know." It is sufficient to know that on first opening our eyes "upon the stage of existence," we found "intoxicating liquor recognized by everybody, used by everybody, repudiated by nobody."
The state of intoxication is a house with many mansions. Fourteen centuries before the birth of Christ, the Rigveda finds Hindu priests chanting hymns to a "drop of soma," the wise and wisdom-loving plant from which was drawn juices distilled in sheep's wool that "make us see far; make us richer, better." Philosophers in ancient Greece rejoiced in the literal meaning of the word symposium, a "drinking together." The Roman Stoic Seneca recommends the judicious embrace of Bacchus as a liberation of the mind "from its slavery to cares, emancipates it, invigorates it, and emboldens it for all its undertakings."
Omar Khayyam, twelfth-century Persian mathematician and astronomer, drinks wine "because it is my solace," allowing him to "divorce absolutely reason and religion." Martin Luther, early father of the Protestant Reformation, in 1530 exhorts the faithful to "drink, and right freely," because it is the devil who tells them not to. "One must always do what Satan forbids. What other cause do you think that I have for drinking so much strong drink, talking so freely, and making merry so often, except that I wish to mock and harass the devil who is wont to mock and harass me."
Dr. Samuel Johnson, child of the Enlightenment, requires wine only when alone, "to get rid of myself -- to send myself away." The French poet Charles Baudelaire, prodigal son of the Industrial Revolution, is less careful with his time. "One should always be drunk. That's the great thing, the only question. Drunk with what? With wine, with poetry, or with virtue, as you please."- Advertisement -
My grandfather, Roger Lapham (1883--1966), was similarly disposed, his house in San Francisco the stage of existence upon which, at the age of seven in 1942, I first opened my eyes to the practice as old as the world itself. At the Christmas family gathering that year, Grandfather deemed any and all children present who were old enough to walk instead of toddle therefore old enough to sing a carol, recite a poem, and drink a cup of kindness made with brandy, cinnamon, and apples. To raise the spirit, welcome the arrival of our newborn Lord and Savior. Joy to the world, peace on earth, goodwill toward men.
"If You Meet, You Drink""
Thus introduced to intoxicating liquors under auspices both secular and sacred, the offering of alms for oblivion I took to be the custom of the country in which I had been born. In the 1940s as it was in the 1840s, as it had been ever since the Mayflower arrived at Plymouth laden with emboldening casks of wine and beer. The spirit of liberty is never far from the hope of metamorphosis or transformation, and the Americans from the beginning were drawn to the possibilities in the having of one more for the road. They formed their character in the settling of a fearful wilderness, and the history of the country could be written as a prolonged mocking and harassing of the devil by the drinking, "and right freely," from whatever wise and wisdom-loving grain or grape came conveniently to hand.
The oceangoing Pilgrims in colonial Massachusetts and Rhode Island delighted in both the taste and trade in rum. The founders of the republic in Philadelphia in 1787 were in the habit of consuming prodigious quantities of liquor as an expression of their faith in their fellow men -- pots of ale or cider at midday, two or more bottles of claret at dinner followed by an amiable passing around the table of the Madeira.