How Will Future Historians Appraise the American Experiment?


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Norman Podhoretz “People are free to choose whatever view they wish to hold. If it were up to me, all intellectuals would be defending our kind of society. Let me add to this: I think American civilization, as a socio-political system, is one of the high points of human achievement. I compare it to fifth-century Athens. Not in the cultural sense; though we have not done too badly in the creation of artistic monuments, we don’t rank with fifth-century Athens or sixteenth-century Italy or Elizabethan England; but as a socio-political, democratic system we will be seen — if there is a future and there are future historians — as one of the highest points of human achievement, because we have created a society in which more people enjoy more freedom and more prosperity than any human community ever known to human history. And that is not nothing, to put it mildly. I wish everybody recognized that. Many people still don’t.”


Norman Podhoretz, former editor of Commentary, speaking in an interview with Harry Kreisler as part of his “Conversations with History” series. You’ll find more substantial reflections like this in Podhoretz’s political memoir My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative.

This statement comes toward the tail end of Podhoretz and Kreisler’s hour-long conversation. The interview covers a lot of ground, and I recommend giving the whole thing a listen, though the next reflection, which wraps up their talk, has a special poignancy. Podhoretz is asked to summarize a lesson for his grandchildren in the context of his own strange intellectual journey from Marxist to founding neoconservative. He replies:

I hope that they would first of all learn to place the kind of value on this country that I think it deserves. Secondly, I hope that they would learn to understand how important ideas are… I would hope that they would also understand the idea that was most eloquently expressed by George Orwell who said something like this: the truth to which we have got to cling as a drowning man to a raft is that is possible to be a normal decent human being and still be fully alive. And I endorse that view with all my heart. I would hope my grandchildren would learn to endorse it as well.

Update: I emailed this excerpt to Noam Chomsky last night, with a question about how to square Podhoretz’s patriotism with Chomsky’s hypercritical posture towards American society and government. He replied:

No society deserves “gushing patriotism.” In terms of material prosperity, the US ranks fairly high. In the 18th century the colonies were probably the richest part of the world, and the US has incomparable material advantages, at least after the indigenous population was exterminated or expelled. Huge resources and territory, incomparable security, etc. One can debate how well the society has done considering these incomparable advantages. Similar questions arise in other dimensions. A true patriot doesn’t gush about how marvelous we are, but evaluates successes and failures and seeks to overcome the failures.

If you liked that, you’ll like these:

Henry Ford Was a Colossal Moron


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150th Anniversary of the Birth of Company Founder Henry Ford

“For a man who changed the world, Henry Ford traveled in very small circle. He resided his whole life within a dozen miles of birthplace, a farm in Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit. He saw little of the wider world and cared even less for it.

He was defiantly narrow-minded, barely educated, and at least close to functionally illiterate. His beliefs were powerful but consistently dubious, and made him seem, in the words of The New Yorker, ‘mildly unbalanced.’ He did not like bankers, doctors, liquor, tobacco, idleness of any sort, pasteurized milk, Wall Street, overweight people, war, books or reading, J. P. Morgan and Co., capital punishment, tall buildings, college graduates, Roman Catholics, or Jews. Especially he didn’t like Jews. Once he hired a Hebraic scholar to translate the Talmud in a manner designed to make Jewish people appear shifty and avaricious.

His ignorance was a frequent source of wonder. He believed that the earth could not support the weight placed on it by skyscrapers and that eventually cities would collapse in on themselves, as in some kind of biblical apocalypse. Engineers explained to him that a large skyscraper typically weighed about sixty thousand tons while the rock and earth excavated for the foundations would weigh more like a hundred tons, so that skyscrapers actually reduced the burden on the earth beneath them, but Ford was unpersuaded. He seldom let facts or logic challenge the certainty of his instincts.

The limits of his knowledge were most memorable exposed in 1919 when he sued the Chicago Tribune for libel for calling him an ‘ignorant idealist’ and an ‘anarchist.’ For eight days, lawyers for the Tribune entertained the nation by punting through the shallow waters of Ford’s mind, as in this typical exchange regarding his familiarity with the history of his own country:

Lawyer: Did you ever hear of Benedict Arnold?
Ford: I have heard the name.
Lawyer: Who was he?
Ford: I have forgotten just who he is. He is a writer, I think.

Ford, it transpired, did not know much of anything. He could not say when the American Revolution was fought (‘In 1812, I think; I’m not quite sure’) or quite what the issues were that provoked it. Questioned about politics, he conceded that he didn’t follow matters closely and had voted only once in his life. That was just after his twenty-first birthday, when, he said, he had voted for James Garfield. An alert lawyer pointed out that Garfield was in fact assassinated three years before Ford reached voting age.”


Pulled from Bill Bryson’s superbly readable romp of a history book One Summer: America, 1927.

In all fairness to both author and subject, Bryson’s next paragraph gives you the other side of Ford’s commendable personal story:

Yet against this must be set his extraordinary achievement. When Henry Ford built his first Model T, Americans had some 2,200 makes of cars to choose from. Every one of those cars was in some sense a toy, a plaything for the well-to-do. Ford changed the automobile into a universal appliance, an affordable device practical for all, and that difference in philosophy made him unimaginably successful and transformed the world. Within just over a decade Ford had more than fifty factories on six continents, employed two hundred thousand people, produced half the world’s cars, and was the most successful industrialist in history, worth perhaps as much as $2 billion, by one estimate. By perfecting mass production and making the automobile an object within financial reach of the average workingman, he wholly transformed the course and rhythm of modern life. We live in a world largely shaped by Henry Ford…

Henry Ford was born in July 1863, the same month as the Battle of Gettysburg, and lived into the atomic age, dying in 1947.

So there’s that.

Go onward:

Henry Ford with Car

“Carlos” by Theodore Deppe


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John- June 2006 231

My first day leading the prison writing workshop: Carlos
complimented my choosing the chair nearest the door.

I read a poem by Whitman that once sent me hitchhiking
and Carlos stood up, asked to read a section from his four hundred-page work-in progress,

a poem that turns on his first finding Neruda’s “One Year Walk”;
he said it lit up the night like a perfect crime, so I left everything—

I had no choice—walked three thousand miles to the Pacific.
From memory he recited a passage in which his father left the family

a small fortune, all counterfeit: though I doubted the facts, I can still see
that worn briefcase, almost-perfect hundreds stacked neatly in shrink-wrapped packs.

I was young, it took me two weeks to accept that I could teach this lifer
nothing. World of concrete floors and everlasting light:

he was grateful to God who gave him a blazing mind not granted to anyone living or dead,
and wouldn’t have changed a word anyway.


“Carlos” by Theodore Deppe. You’ll find it and other masterworks from Deppe in his collection Orpheus on the Redline.

I snapped the picture in Houston.

There’s more:

Killing Saddam, Resurrecting al-Qaeda


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Harry Kreisler: From the start, Jihadists came to believe that it would be ideal if American troops would be drawn back into the middle east. The idea was that if they attacked [on 9/11] and we came back at them in Afghanistan, the US would be destroyed in Afghanistan like the USSR had been.

They were wrong about that. But then… the invasion in Iraq.

Lawrence Wright: Iraq looks a lot like what bin Laden had in mind for us in Afghanistan.

If you read the memoirs of the inner-circle and ideologues of al-Qaeda, they confess that al-Qaeda was essentially dead after November, December 2001, when American and coalition forces swept aside the Taliban and pummeled al-Qaeda, accomplishing in a few weeks what the Red Army had failed to do in 10 years.

Eighty-percent of al-Qaeda membership was captured or killed, according to their own figures. And although we didn’t get the leaders, the survivors were scattered, unable to communicate with each other, destitute, and repudiated all over the world.

So this was a movement that was in a kind of zombie-like state.

It was Iraq that set the prairie on fire, that gave them another chance. Ironically, Iraq was never on bin Laden’s list of a likely candidate for Jihad because he knew it was a largely Shia nation, and al-Qaeda of course is an Sunni organization.

So it wasn’t high on his list. But we gave him an opportunity. And he took it.


Messrs. Wright and Kreisler, chatting about Wright’s fantastic chronicle of the origins of the war on terror The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Keep going:

Lawrence Wright

Not Praying in Auschwitz


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Primo Levi

“Like Amery, I too entered the lager as a nonbeliever, and as a nonbeliever I was liberated and have lived to this day. Actually, the experience in the lager with its frightful iniquity confirmed me in my non-belief. It prevented, and still prevents me from conceiving of any form of providence or transcendent justice: Why were the moribund packed in cattle cars? Why were the children sent to the gas?

I must nevertheless admit that I experienced (and again only once) the temptation to yield, to seek refuge in prayer. This happened in October 1944, in the one moment in which I lucidly perceived the imminence of death: when, naked and compressed among my naked companions with my personal index card in hand, I was waiting to file past the ‘commission’ that with one glance would decide whether I should go to the gas chamber or was instead strong enough to go on working.

For one instant I felt the need to ask for help and asylum; then, despite my anguish, equanimity prevailed: one does not change the rules of the game at the end of the match, not when you are losing. A prayer under these conditions would have been not only absurd (what rights could I claim? and from whom?) but blasphemous, obscene, laden with the greatest impiety of which a nonbeliever is capable. I rejected that temptation: I knew that otherwise, were I to survive, I would have been ashamed of it.”


From Primo Levi, succumbing to a null theodicy in his last book The Drowned and the Saved.

A few months after his liberation and return home to Turin, the twenty-six-year-old Levi wrote a poem titled “February 25, 1944,” the day he first walked through the iron gates marked Arbeit macht frei:

I would like to believe in something,
Something beyond the death that undid you.
I would like to describe the intensity
With which, already overwhelmed,
We longed in those day to be able
To walk together once again
Free beneath the sun.

The crux of the poem is, to me, that wrenching last word of the third line. In Italian, however, overwhelmed reads like “to be submerged” or “to be drowned” (essere sommersi). Free is more like “to be saved” (essere salivate). Hence the book’s title.

Inside the Mind of Muhammad Atta


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9:11 Security Camera

“What the [9/11 hijacking] recruits tended to have in common — besides their urbanity, their cosmopolitan backgrounds, their education, their facility with languages, and their computer skills — was displacement. Most who joined the jihad did so in a country other than the one in which they were reared… The imams naturally responded to the alienation and anger that prompted these men to find a spiritual home. A disproportionate number of new mosques in immigrant communities had been financed by Saudi Arabia and staffed by Wahhabi fundamentalists, many of whom were preaching the glories of jihad. […]

Although they would often be accused of being a fascistic cult, the resentment that burned inside the al-Quds mosque, where Atta and his friends gathered, had not been honed into a keen political agenda. But like the Nazis, who were born in the shame of defeat, the radical Islamists shared a fanatical determination to get on top of history after being underfoot for so many generations.

Although Atta had only vaguely socialist ideas of government, he and his circle filled up the disavowed political space that the Nazis left behind. One of Atta’s friends, Munir al-Motassadeq, referred to Hitler as ‘a good man.’ Atta himself often said that the Jews controlled the media, banks, newspapers, and politics from their world headquarters in New York City; moreover, he was convinced that the Jews had planned the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya as a way of holding back Islam. He believed that Monica Lewinsky was a Jewish agent sent to undermine Clinton, who had become too sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

The extreme rigidity of character that everyone detected in Atta was a Nazi trait, and no doubt it was reinforced in him by the need to resist the lure of this generous city. The young urban planner must have admired the cleanliness and efficiency of Hamburg, which was so much the opposite of the Cairo where he had grown up. But the odious qualities that Sayyid Qutb [the founder of modern Islamism] had detected in America — its materialism, its licentiousness, its spiritual falsity — were also spectacularly on display in Hamburg, with its clanging casinos, prostitutes in shop windows, and magnificent, empty cathedrals…

Atta was a perfectionist; in his work he was a skilled but not creative draftsman. Physically, there was a feminine quality to his bearing: He was ‘elegant’ and ‘delicate,’ so that his sexual orientation — however unexpressed — was difficult to read…

On April 11, 1996, when Atta was twenty-seven years old, he signed a standardized will he got from the al-Quds mosque. It was the day Israel attacked Lebanon in Operation Grapes of Wrath. According to one of his friends, Atta was enraged, and by filling out his last testament during the attack he was offering his life in response.

Although the sentiments in the will represent the tenets of his community of faith, Atta constantly demonstrated an aversion to women, who in his mind were like Jews in their powerfulness and corruption. The will states: ‘No pregnant woman or disbelievers should walk in my funeral or ever visit my grave. No woman should ask forgiveness of me. Those who will wash my body should wear gloves so that they do not touch my genitals.’ The anger that this statement directs at women and its horror of sexual contact invites the thought that Atta’s turn to terror had as much to do with his own conflicted sexuality as it did with the clash of civilizations.”


An excerpt from Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

If you’re yet to see it, spend two hours watching the new HBO documentary Going Clear, based on Wright’s book of the same title. It’s an eery, engrossing, and absolutely scandalizing look at the Church of Scientology and its hucksterish origins and practices.

Wright is interviewed throughout the film. His speech is always clear, never hyperbolic, and tuned to challenge viewers’ easy assumptions and reflexive piety. His command of the material effortlessly shows through. I was impressed and liked the guy, so I decided to read his book on 9/11 — and I encourage you to do the same. It reveals the origins of not only that day — the most important day of any of our lifetimes — but also of the kind of fiendish, extremist worldview (what Martin Amis once broadly labeled “the dependent mind”) that we’re now confronting in nearly every country on earth. It’s a stranger and even less coherent creation story than you’d expect.

Read on:

Lawrence Wright

In a Real Democracy April 15th Would Be a Day of Mass Celebration


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Noam Chomsky

“Look at our political institutions. You have, say, the New Hampshire primary. In a democratic society, what would happen is the people in a town in New Hampshire would get together in their own organizations, assemblies, groups, whatever they are, and take off a little time from whatever careers or other activities that they’re engaged in and say, ‘Alright, let’s work out what we would like to see in the next election.’

And they’d come up with some sort of program: we’d like to see this. Then, if some candidate says, ‘I would like to come to town to talk to you,’ they would respond, ‘Well you can come if you want to listen to us.’ And the candidate could come and they would explain to him what they want…

What happens is totally different.

Nobody meets in the town. The candidate and his media representatives announce that he or she is coming to New Hampshire and they gather people together. The people sit there and listen to the candidate saying, ‘Look how wonderful I am, I’m going to do all these great things,’ and nobody believes a word and then they go home. Well, you know, that’s the opposite of democracy.

In fact, we see it all the time. Take, say, April 15th. In a functioning democratic society that would be a day of celebration, the day you hand in your taxes. You would be saying: ‘Alright, we got together, we worked out some plans and programs that we think ought to be implemented and we’re now participating in providing the funding to get these things done.’ That’s a democracy. In the United States it’s a day of mourning. It’s a day when this alien force, you know, the government, which comes from Mars or somewhere is arriving to steal from us our hard earned money and use it for their own purposes, whatever they are. That’s a reflection of the fact that the concept of democracy is not even in people’s minds anymore. Now, I’m exaggerating. It’s not quite this sharp, but it’s pretty close.”


Noam Chomsky, speaking in ‘Part IV: Political Institutions’ of The Chomsky Sessions on ZNet. You can find extended interviews with Dr. Chomsky in the always challenging Class Warfare: Interviews with David Barsamian.

In the United States, April 15th is statistically shown to be the second most stressful day of the year, as 56% of American adults say the tax-filling process is “stressful” and 18% say it is “very stressful.” (Data from a Zogby poll shows peak tornado season to be the most stressful day of the year.) Three quarters of Americans say money is “a significant cause of stress in [their] lives,” leaving us unsurprised that the day a large stack of that cash is handed over would be an especially anxious one. You are also far more likely to be injured in a car accident on April 15th and 16th, given each sees statistically significant spikes in incidents of road rage (Super Bowl Sunday is the second most dangerous day to be on the road, according to The Journal of the American Medical Association).

Don’t agree with Noam? You’re still in some good company:

Existence for Existence’s Sake?: Dostoevsky, Sam Harris, and Others on the Surprising Reason We Want to Stay Alive


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Dworkin-Nagel 1

Aggregated here are several attempts to address that simple question. Why do you want to stay alive?

Though they arrive there from different byways, each thinker finally rests on the same idea: the reason why we want to stay alive is, simply, to perpetuate our existence. We want to stay alive to stay alive. Sound absurd, or absurdly tautological? It’s not, at least in my view. The value we place in life has little to do with projected positive experiences — the quivering line graph that registers whether we’re ecstatic one moment, unsatisfied the next. Rather, what we want is to continue the oft-banal experience of merely existing. Read on. See if you agree.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, speaking through the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov in Part II, Chapter 6 of Crime and Punishment:

‘Where is it,’ thought Raskolnikov. ‘Where is it I’ve read that some one condemned to death says or thinks, an hour before his death, that if he had to live on some high rock, on such a narrow ledge that he’d only room to stand, and the ocean, everlasting darkness, everlasting solitude, everlasting tempest around him, if he had to remain standing on a square yard of space all his life, a thousand years, eternity, it were better to live so than to die at once! Only to live, to live and live! Life, whatever it may be!… How true it is! Good God, how true! Man is a vile creature!… And vile is he who calls him vile for that,’ he added a moment later.

In a recent interview with Jenny Attiyeh, Jim Holt, author of the existential mystery Why Does the World Exist?, reflected on the question and offered a level-headed and explicit answer:

Interviewer: Jim, in your work there are some themes that keep reappearing, notably religion and mortality… do you think that perhaps you’re getting a little bit worried about death?

Holt: Actually I think in many ways it would be a good career move for me [laughs], and it would solve almost all of my problems.

I think that life is — and I don’t know what your life is like — but mine sort of hovers around the zero point that separates pleasure from pain and happiness from misery. And every once in a while I’ll get a little spike into the happiness region, but then I’ll immediately go back down close to the zero point, or creep below that into the misery region. Yet I fluctuate around that point. And what I really cherish about life is being conscious. And to me that’s the subjective counterpart to the question ‘Why should the universe exist?’: ‘Why should consciousness exist? Why should my self exist?’

And what interests me is the way that philosophers have tried to take the sting out of death by various arguments that go back to the Epicureans. Lucretius and Epicurus himself said, ‘Well, don’t get so worried about death because your nonexistence after you die is just the mirror image of your nonexistence before you were born.’

And you didn’t worry about not existing the centuries before you were born, so why should you worry about not existing after your death?

The great Thomas Nagel rigorously deconstructed the idea in his magisterial book The View from Nowhere:

People are attracted to the possibility of long-term suspended animation or freezing, followed by the resumption of conscious life, because they can regard it from within simply as a continuation of their present life. If these techniques are ever perfected, what from outside appeared as a dormant interval of three hundred years could be experienced by the subject as nothing more than a sharp discontinuity in the character of his experiences. I do not deny, or course, that this has its own disadvantages. Family and friends may have died in the meantime; the language may have changed; the comforts of social, geographical, and cultural familiarity would be lacking. Nevertheless those inconveniences would not obliterate the basic advantage of continued, thought discontinuous, existence.

It is being alive, doing certain things, having certain experiences, that we consider good. But if death is an evil, it is the loss of life, rather than the state of being dead, or nonexistent, or unconscious, that is objectionable. This asymmetry is important. If it is good to be alive, that advantage can be attributed to a person at each point of his life. It is good of which Bach had more than Schubert, simply because he lived longer. Death, however, is not an evil of which Shakespeare has so far received a larger portion than Proust. If death is a disadvantage, it is not easy to say when a man suffers it.

If we are to make sense of the view that to die is bad, it must be on the ground that life is a good and death is the corresponding deprivation or loss, bad not because of any positive features but because of the desirability of what it removes.

Saul Frampton reflects on Montaigne and the question of existence for existence’s sake in his book When I Am Playing with My Cat, How Do I Know That She Is Not Playing with Me?:

Sometime towards the end of the sixteenth century, Michel Eyquem, Seigneur de Montaigne, reached up to the ceiling of his library and scratched off an inscription he had placed there some years before…

The inscription Montaigne erased was a line from the Roman poet Lucretius: Nec nova vivendo procuditur ulla voluptas — There is no new pleasure to be gained by living longer. It was a sentiment he had previously held dear to. Like most thinkers of his time, Montaigne followed a Christian and a Stoic philosophy, where life was seen as preparation for the afterlife and the task of philosophy was to harden oneself against the vicissitudes of fortune…

But Montaigne’s erasing of the words of Lucretius from the ceiling of his library also marks an amazing reversal in Montaigne’s outlook over the course of his writing – a shift from a philosophy of death to a philosophy of life.

And Montaigne’s writing overflows with life. In over a hundred essays and around half a million words he records every thought, every taste and sensation that crosses his mind. He writes essays on sleep and on sadness, on smells and friendship, on children and sex and death. And, as a final testament, he writes an essay on experience, in which he contemplates the wonder of human existence itself.

And, to close, Sam Harris nodded at the significance of life’s most mundane pleasures in a recent online Q&A:

Questioner: Is is not objectively better never to have been? What flaw is there in the nonexistent state?

Harris: It is impossible to eat pancakes there.


Have more to add? Send them my way: john[at]

The picture is of the headiest pancake breakfast of all time: Ronald Dworkin and Thomas Nagel shooting the breeze at the local diner.

I’ve done this sort of agreement among geniuses thing before:


Stefan Molyneux: The Tragic Flaw in Taxation Is You Can Redistribute Products of Virtue but Not of Vice


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“A friend of mine had two sisters. One of those sisters was seriously hard-working: she was on the volleyball team, she had a job. She was conscientious; she did her homework. She was a really good girl.

And his other sister was… not.

She would stay out all night, she would party. She was one of the 30% of Americans who can proudly say that in the past year they have not read a single book…

Now, years later, for reasons that don’t really matter, I ran into them again. The good girl had gotten her accounting degree and she was still taking courses. She got up early, she went on business trips. She did all the stuff that is tough. She faced her fears, which you get when you go into business from a low-rent neighborhood — you get a bit of fraud-itis, which is the feeling ‘Well these people all know that I come from a terrible, welfare-based, single-mom household, right?’

She faced all those fears, she worked hard, she did a good job; and as a result, her income was going north. Seriously north. Like, she was close to six figures by the time she was 26 or 27.

Now her other sister had continued the party-girl lifestyle, and had dabbled in various mind altering substances, not including television. She hadn’t added one dime to her human capital. She hadn’t learned any skills. She was basically milking her looks, and being taken out by guys, and sooner or later, I’m sure would end up pregnant.

The good girl, who was making a lot of money, had worked really hard and had done what I would consider responsible, maybe even virtuous and good stuff with her life. Whereas the party girl had had a lot of fun.

And let’s not kid ourselves: that stuff is fun. Studying for an accounting degree versus going to a rave; if you’ve only got one day to live, you ain’t cracking the book on double entry bookkeeping, right? You’re going to go to the rave.

And you know what the terrible thing is in a democracy? You can tax money, but you can’t tax fun.

This is a very profound thing to understand. The sister who worked hard made $100,000 a year. That can be taxed. The fruits of her hard work and conscientiousness, that can be taxed.

All the fun her sister had, that can’t be taxed. You can’t swap that out.

Irresponsibility leaves nothing but fun memories. Responsibility leaves income that can be redistributed.

In a democracy, you can vote to take away the products of virtue. But you can never vote to take away the products of vice, of laziness, of indolence.”


From the offbeat, eloquent, often misguided but always illuminating Stefan Molyneux, speaking in his podcast on Why Democracies Fail. You can find an easy introduction to Molyneux and his philosophy in his ($.99) book Everyday Anarchy.

More good riffs on the subject:

The Obvious Futility of the Drug War


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Milton Friedman 2

“More police, more jails, more stringent penalties. Increased efforts at interception, increased publicity about the evils of drugs — all this has been accompanied by more, not fewer, drug addicts; more, not fewer, crimes and murders; more, not less, corruption; more, not fewer, innocent victims…

Legalizing drugs is not equivalent to surrender in the fight against drug addiction. On the contrary, I believe that legalizing drugs is a precondition for an effective fight. We might then have a real chance to prevent sales to minors; get drugs out of the schools and playgrounds; save crack babies and reduce their number; launch an effective educational campaign on the personal costs of drug use — not necessarily conducted, I might add, by government; punish drug users guilty of harming others while ‘under the influence'; and encourage large numbers of addicts to volunteer for treatment and rehabilitation when they could do so without confessing to criminal actions…

I do not believe, and neither did [the American founders], that it is the responsibility of government to tell free citizens what is right and wrong. That is something for them to decide for themselves. Government is a means to enable each of us to pursue our own vision in our own way so long as we do not interfere with the right of others to do the same. In the words of the Declaration of Independence, ‘all Men are… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights. that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the Governed.’ In my view, Justice Louis Brandeis was a ‘true friend of freedom’ when he wrote, ‘Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasions of their liberty- by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning. but without understanding.’”


Pulled from Milton Friedman’s 1989 WSJ article “Bennett Fears ‘Public Policy Disaster’ — It’s Already Here!”. You can find it in his seminal collection of writings on public policy Why Government Is the Problem.

I am certainly in Friedman’s liberty-centric camp. Nonetheless I think arguments against the drug war can rest securely on several other foundations, including the fact that this generations-long “war” has been a fundamentally disruptive, rather than pacifying, force for our society. Johann Hari, whose new book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the Drug War is next on my reading list, shared the following insight about one of the most orderly people on the planet, the Swiss:

Switzerland, a very conservative country, legalized heroin for addicts, meaning you go to the doctor, the doctor assigns you to a clinic, you go to that clinic every day, and you inject your heroin. You can’t take it out with you. I went to that clinic — it looks like a fancy Manhattan hairdresser’s, and the addicts go out after injecting their heroin to their jobs and their lives.

I stress again — Switzerland is a very right-wing country, and after its citizens had seen this in practice, they voted by 70% in two referenda to keep heroin legal for addicts, because they could see that it works. They saw that crime massively fell, property crime massively fell, muggings and street prostitution declined enormously…

The arguments that work well in persuading the people we still want to reach are order-based arguments. I think the Swiss heroin referenda are good models for that. Basically, what they said was drug war means chaos. It means unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown users, all in the dark, in our public places, filled with disease and chaos. Legalization is a way of imposing regulation and order on this anarchy. It’s about taking it away from criminal gangs and giving it to doctors and pharmacists, and making sure it happens in nice clean clinics, and we get our nice parks back, and we reduce crime. That’s the argument that will win. And it’s not like it’s a rhetorical trick — it’s true. That is what happens.

Hari continues, reflecting on the even more dramatic example presented by the Portuguese experiment:

In 2000 Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe. One percent of the population was addicted to heroin, which is kind of extraordinary. Every year they tried the American way more and more: They arrested and imprisoned more people, and every year the problem got worse…

They convened a panel of scientists and doctors and said to them (again I’m paraphrasing), “Go away and figure out what would solve this problem, and we will agree in advance to do whatever you recommend.” They just took it out of politics. It was very smart…

The panel went away for a year and a half and came back and said: “Decriminalize everything from cannabis to crack. But” — and this is the crucial next stage — “take all the money we used to spend on arresting and harassing and imprisoning drug users, and spend it on reconnecting them with society and turning their lives around.”

Some of it was what we think of as treatment in America and Britain — they do do residential rehab, and they do therapy — but actually most of it wasn’t that. Most of it, the most successful part, was really very simple. It was making sure that every addict in Portugal had something to get out of bed for in the morning. It consisted of subsidized jobs and microloans to set up small businesses.

Say you used to be a mechanic. When you’re ready, they’ll go to a garage and they’ll say, “If you employ Sam for a year, we’ll pay half his wages.” The microloans had extremely low interest rates, and many businesses were set up by addicts.

It’s been nearly 15 years since this experiment began, and the results are in. Drug use by injection is down by 50%, broader addiction is down, overdose is massively down, and HIV transmission among addicts is massively down.

Compare that with the results in the United States over the past few years.

Like I said, I’m on the same page as Friedman. These guys are too:

Galileo Squares Faith and Reason


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“I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the holy Bible can never speak untruth — whenever its true meaning is understood.  But I believe nobody will deny that it is often very abstruse, and may say things which are quite different from what its bare words signify. Hence in expounding the Bible if one were always to confine oneself to the unadorned grammatical meaning, one might fall into error. Not only contradictions and propositions far from true might thus be made to appear in the Bible, but even grave heresies and follies…

It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. But Nature, on the other hand, is inexorable and immutable; she never transgresses the laws imposed upon her, or cares a whit whether her abstruse reasons and methods of operation are understandable to men. For that reason it appears that nothing physical which sense experience sets before our eyes, or which necessary demonstrations prove to us, ought to be called in question (much less condemned) upon the testimony of biblical passages which may have some different meaning beneath their words. For the Bible is not chained in every expression to conditions as strict as those which govern all physical effects; nor is God any less excellently revealed in Nature’s actions than in the sacred statements of the Bible…

It follows as a necessary consequence that, since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind. And the motion or rest of the earth and the sun is so closely linked with the things just named, that without a determination of the one, neither side can be taken in the other matters. Now if the Holy Spirit has purposely neglected to teach us propositions of this sort as irrelevant to the highest goal (that is, to our salvation), how can anyone affirm that it is obligatory to take sides on them, that one belief is required by faith, while the other side is erroneous? Can an opinion be heretical and yet have no concern with the salvation of souls? Can the Holy Ghost be asserted not to have intended teaching us something that does concern our salvation?

I would say here something that was heard from an ecclesiastic of the most eminent degree: ‘That the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how heaven goes.'”


Excerpted from Galileo Galilei’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, sent in 1615 and collected in Stillman Drake’s The Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo.

It’s astounding the burden this logic can lift from the shoulders of literalists.

More science and faith:

Galileo 2


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