Archive for the ‘Current events’ Category

On Legalization

December 11th, 2017

(This is an essay I wrote in the form of testimony to a legislative committee.  the Vermont legislature will be reconsidering legalization of marijuana in the coming session.  I hope they eighty-six forty-two.)

 

This is testimony based on my personal experience about what the people advocating marijuana legalization are trying to sell you.

 

I was sixteen and new to the high school, but I knew what to do with the fat hand rolled cigarette my new friend had given me.  Even though I never had seen one before, I had heard about such things.  So I went to the second floor bathroom in my house, opened the window, put a towel under the door, and smoked it.  By contrast with the harsh tobacco I had tried, I could keep the smoke from this one down.  When I went outside on that sunny summer day, it seemed sunnier than sunny, and I felt happy and relaxed and at ease.  I had not felt so relaxed and at ease for a long time.

 

That was 1968, when pot was a lot weaker than the 10% or more THC content it is purposely bred to now, and thus began the next seventeen years of my life.  By the time I got to college, I was smoking every day, if I possibly could.  I smoked my way through law shcool, rarely attending classes, barely graduating, and then I failed to use my law degree for another eleven years, until after I had stopped smoking.  In the meantime, living in Boston on a near-poverty level stipend from VISTA, I bought pot with whatever money I had left over after paying rent and food, and when I couldn’t afford to buy a lid I stole it from my housemates, sneaking into their rooms when they weren’t there and stealing small amounts, taking roaches out of ashtrays and garbage cans, scraping hash pipes for residue, making sure I could get high every day.

 

I will leave it to others to quibble over whether to call this addiction.  You may say people have the right to make choices, even bad ones.  I did not sign up to spend a quarter of my life in dull stagnation, but that’s what happened.

 

When I say got high every day, I do not mean that pleasant, relaxed, aesthetically heightened state that I found at the beginning, when the birds’ singing was more musical than music and music itself was a transcendental experience – the drum solo in Inna Gadda Da Vida, man! The sound of a zilch bomb dripping into a bucket in a friend’s apartment at 3 a.m.!  Although it is bad enough, in retrospect, to have been so absorbed for so many hours by such meaningless stupidity.

 

Even those experiences eventually were beside the point.  When you’re high all the time, what was intense to begin with gradually greys and dulls to the stuff of quotidian routine.  The point of getting high becomes not the heightened aesthetics, not the jollies, which in any event are no longer so heightened nor so jolly, and in fact now are tinged with numbness and paranoia.  I just passively let stuff happen around me.  I watched a lot of TV.  I felt empty, so I ate a lot of lousy food.  We laugh about munchies, but poisoning yourself with junk food isn’t really funny.  Why are those people are looking at me?  Am I behaving oddly?  How should I know?  No, the point of getting high becomes simply that, to get high.  Furtively digging that little lump of crumpled, browned, saliva stained paper out of a housemate’s wastebasket, unfolding it, and finding a crumb of vegetable matter inside – oh good it’s not a seed – to add to the other little bits of vegetable matter I’ve scrounged and burn them and suck it into my lungs so I can get to that place that is somehow different from the place I would be if I hadn’t done this.

 

Seventeen years of putting my brain on hold, of putting my emotional development on hold.  A pothead might do startling or clever things, but he’s not growing, and although he might feel he is being creative, his ability to create is hampered because his ability to deal with life is impaired.  That impairment is the other point of being high.  Pot makes you stupid, but in a particular way.  It provides a rug and a broom and you can use that  broom to sweep under that rug all the stuff you should be dealing with.  In my case, that included the death of someone I loved and a history of early childhood sexual abuse.  Being high all the time put that stuff so far away from me I couldn’t see it.

 

When you’re high, it’s difficult to sustain a thought or develop an image.  Mental processes may begin with a whoosh of energy, but they soon dissipate into curly digressive tangles.  Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a writer.  But writing is hard, particularly the part where you have to make yourself sit down and do it.  I look back at my marijuana years, and see a lot of time spent away from the typewriter, a lot of fitful starts, a lot of crumpled paper and unfinished work, and what little I produced was stunted and shallow.  Because I was.

 

Dealing with the painful stuff of growth and development, and of overcoming trauma, requires sustained effort, a willingness to gaze steadily on ugliness and to accept pain in order to move through it.  But the stoner is hedged off from that mental space by a thicket of distractions and diversions.  Avoiding all that discomfort can help you function, but at a minimal level, and at the cost of stagnation.  You sacrifice your capacity for joy.

 

Listen to the language we use and what it tells you.  Ripped, baked, fried, stoned, blasted, wasted, f-ed up.  These are the words that our culture has grown organically, as it were, out of the experience itself.  They’re more honest and truly descriptive than any of the carefully chosen language you’ll hear from a marketer or advocate.

 

When I stopped smoking pot, I had to play a lot of psychological catch-up, years of therapy for which I am grateful the state employees’ health insurance plan paid.  If I hadn’t had access to that, I might still be struggling merely to function.  Of course this service didn’t come free: thanks to all those state employees and taxpayers for funding it.  Maybe if I’d addressed the stuff I needed to address earlier than I did, I would have addressed it quicker and more cheaply.  I might have written more and better, contributed more to the community as a lawyer,  learned what I needed to become a better husband and parent.  But I smoked pot instead.

 

I am a lucky one.  I did not have a psychotic break, although a pot smoker is 2.6 times more likely to suffer this outcome. I know a few people this happened to.  I’ve known a number of drug casualties, people whose mentation, shall we say, is of the vague and wandering sort.  Don’t we all know people like that?  Nobody got injured in any of my car accidents.  I scrupulously stuck to my self-imposed rule about never using a needle, so I escaped that kind of addiction. Studies now show that opiate addiction is more likely for pot smokers.  Sure, my memories of those seventeen years are haphazard and spotty.  So a quarter of my life is mostly lost to me.  That’s the kind of price the lucky ones pay.

 

Pot is not the safe and innocent pleasure I thought it was, back in the sixties, despite what adults and the government wanted me to believe.  The adults’ standards regarding everything else, from sexuality to religion to the meaning of success, were suspect and crumbling, and the government was lying to me about matters of life and death such as war, and there wasn’t any science to back up their hysterical overreaction to this seemingly benevolent drug.

 

Now there is plenty of science.  Listen to the doctors.

 

Don’t legalize it.  You may ask, what difference would that make?  Criminalization didn’t stop you, Mr. Steinzor, from abusing it.  But legalization would do several things.  It would make it more available, and it would feed into the misperception that this is a harmless recreational activity.  People who want to believe that would seize on this as an authoritative statement.  It’s called confirmation bias.  We tend to focus on information that supports what we want to believe, and we dismiss the rest.  Listen to the doctors.

 

Don’t support legalization unless you really think it would be fine for your kids to spend a substantial portion of their lives grubbing around among the dust bunnies under the couch for a few grains of weed.

 

I am not calling for criminalization – what a disaster that was!  But I’m not saying the status quo is acceptable, either.  Get real about substance abuse.  Get over the notion that a rich person’s God-given right to have lots of money is more important than what I’m talking about.  Raise taxes if you need to.  Fund the mental health system adequately – our so-called “system” of services for adolescents is a sick joke.  Give kids healthy things to do in school and especially out of school – sports, outdoor education, art education, music, theatre, community service.  Invest in programs that support and strengthen families.  Invest in community, in making our villages and towns places where people can have daily encounters with beauty, where they can expect to live creative, productive, happy lives, where the strength of neighborhood supports them.

 

Or, you can give all that money to the marijuana industry.  You’ll never get it back.  Your choice.

Psychopath Trump

October 20th, 2017

I think it is unfair to criticize Trump for attempting to console a fallen soldier’s widow by telling her, “he knew what he signed up for,” or words to that effect. Trump is a psychopath. He no more can comprehend another person’s feelings, or express genuine empathy with them, than a shark can play the flute. It is not within his ken. To him, shit happens, and if you knowingly walk into a situation where shit happens and indeed shit happens to you, well, you had it coming. That makes you weak and a loser, like John McCain, who got caught. Unless, of course, you are Trump, in which case whatever shit happens is somebody else’s fault. To ask him to comprehend another’s grieving or to express heartfelt sympathy for anything whatever is to make a demand he is not equipped to meet. If I am right, his occasional clumsy simulations of compassion represent somewhat grudging moments of forced obedience to social norms he neither shares nor understands (this is a guy who boasted on a national radio show of refusing assistance to someone he thought was dying), and mask a deep contempt for people (all of us) who have not mastered the arts of survival and personal aggrandizement as he thinks he has. It is sad that people persist in the delusion that he is a more or less normal but flawed person who cares about at least some of them. White men, coal miners, unemployed factory hands, etc. He cares about them only in that they feed his ego and otherwise can be used by him. There is a theory that psychopaths are not fully human, that they are something like a predatory subspecies for which we are prey. If so, then how ironic it is that our first black president, eminently human, should have been succeeded by our first nonhuman president, who campaigned on the promise of walling out aliens! I revile Donald Trump, and wish him a short, unhappy, and unsuccessful time in office. I do not make the mistake of expecting him to be able to counterfeit humanity convincingly. Calling him “insensitive” is like calling a brick hard. Of course it is. To those who would reproach the brick for not being permeable to their emotions, my warm condolences.

Good riddance

August 14th, 2017

“We will not be replaced,” the white racists chanted, and they’re right. They won’t be replaced. Smallpox wasn’t replaced. The dinosaurs weren’t replaced. We’ll just watch them die off. They will make a lot of noise as they go and of course they will kill some people because that’s what they do, and then they will be gone, and they’ll leave a hole that nobody wants to fill. The artifacts of their delusions, the confederate battle flags and nazi memorabilia and statues of slaveholder tools and dupes like Lee and Jackson, will gather dust in the corners and basements of museums that nobody visits. It’s long past time for white people in general to get over themselves, and white racists in particular. They’re poorly adapted to live in this world. The world doesn’t need them and it’s not going to care when they’re gone, which will be sooner than they think if not as soon as they fear. Good riddance.

Attitude adjustment

April 21st, 2017

It is amazing how many people tell me, without being prompted or asked, that they wish he would die.  I’m not going to say his name, but you know exactly whom I am talking about.  Admit it, you have felt this way, too.  Just this morning I was talking to a friend and she dropped it into the conversation with about the same degree and type of emphasis that she might have used in confessing that she doesn’t like cats.  I had to admit that practically every morning when I wake up I check the news right away hoping to read of a popcorn choking incident or myocardial infarction. This does not make us better people, I said.  She said, well, but so long as it’s just him we’re thinking about, it’s not so bad. I suppose that’s one approach. For a while I tried imagining myself inside his head, so that through the magic of empathy I might be able to see him as a human being, like me, deserving of compassion the same as I am. I thought of him as severely emotionally crippled, isolated, unable to connect effectively with other human beings, suffering the pain that goes with that. I’m not that kind of person, but at least that gave me something to work with.  I know something about loneliness.  I was aware that there was a certain amount of schadenfreude in trying to connect with him this way, but it seemed to make him more real and less of a malevolent fantasy.  But then a friend I respect, a psychologist highly experienced in working with criminals, told me that he is a psychopath and he doesn’t feel any pain, at least not the kind of pain I was imagining. I pretty much believe her.  So there goes any basis I can find for relating to him, bringing him within my world of experience, and now what do I do? Empathy doesn’t work if it’s fantasy.  I still don’t want to be the kind of person who wakes up every morning wishing that somebody were dead. Maybe the answer comes out of meditation. There’s no point in repressing a thought. That just attaches you to it and gives it power. Instead you allow the thought to happen, acknowledge that it is happening, and then say goodbye to it. I wish it were that easy to deal with him: allow him to happen, acknowledge that he is happening, and then say goodbye to him. I am impatient. I want to get to the goodbye part without going through the rest. I must remember that “going through the rest” constitutes most of what we call living, and that wishing to cut to the end, the goodbye part, is in that sense a wish for one’s own death to come closer. Am I large enough to live in a world that also contains incomprehensible evil? I hope so. Remember to breathe.

Declaration of Independence

December 24th, 2016

When I was small, I hid under schoolroom furniture at the direction of the so-called “responsible adults” in my life who wanted to pretend that this would somehow protect me from being vaporized, should other so-called “responsible adults” decide they had interests more important than the continued existence of our species. Since then, we have taken several steps back from that abyss. Now we have an evil, evil man who is about to enter the White House and says he wants to walk us back to the brink. I have hesitated to say “not my president” until now because it seemed to me to be just a form of words. But this mindless descent towards the suicidality of a revived nuclear arms race is utterly intolerable. At the very least, what I and millions of other children of my generation were subjected to, in the form of “duck and cover”, was no less than massive child abuse at the hands of our government. Now that I am an adult myself, I will not accept complicity in doing it to a new generation. Does it seem overly dramatic to say that from now on I completely reject the legitimacy of any government headed by this man? That my compliance with such a government will consist only of what is extorted from me by force? More to the point what difference does it make? It feels, deep down in the pit of my stomach, as if it makes a difference. I am not sure what form that difference will take, but I want to remember this feeling. I feel as if I have seen clearly at last, and what I have seen is a servant of death, and it is horrible, but seeing it clearly gives me strength.

You are entitled to the struggle, not the fruits

November 12th, 2016

Okay, maybe this is too soon for some, but I am feeling ready to move beyond rage frustration incomprehension and despair. I don’t really give a fuck what Trump’s character flaws are. I don’t really care except in an abstract kind of way what the people who voted for him were thinking, or the people who voted for Hillary (me included), or whether Batman or Wonder Woman would be more likely to beat the Incredible Hulk. All that is interesting, but beside the point. I don’t care what brave statements of rage or defiance anyone may make. I especially don’t care about pseudo- historical comparisons to 1933 or who is to blame. I don’t care about the media – who will burn in hell – or the “soul” of any political party. That’s some crazy shit, attributing souls to power-grabbing machines. I reject the mean-spirited petulance that reviles Melania and the Trump children. I curse them and their patriarch with someday knowing the harm he has done and will do and the evils he has unleashed and that they embrace. I accept the need of many to demonstrate on the streets to vent their feelings, and I applaud them even though I know that what they are doing is in another sense futile and ineffective. That doesn’t make it unimportant. I pledge to use my strength, which is language and the word, to oppose every evil thing Mr.Trump may try to do, understanding that the word, while mightier than the sword by a fucking million times, is not nearly so quick. Most of all, Gandhi. I will study Gandhi. I will ask, what would Mahatma do? And if I am true to that, if I am the last person in this poor crazed pain-wracked deluded scammed spiritually starved emotionally crippled fat poisoned country to do so, I never will be defeated. And maybe, just maybe, although I can imagine no possibility of reaching through to Mr Trump’s soul, which I fear may be shriveled almost to nonexistence, I will reach through to the souls of enough of those who follow him, as the Standing Rock Sioux have reached the souls of some of those who oppose them on the field, so that I will win. The angry and despairing are neither my allies nor my friends. But those who can imagine that we all are just scared lost humans – those are my allies. And under that sign, we will win.

Some Thoughts on American Terror

December 4th, 2015

Reading Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent anecdotal history of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, one of the things that is falling into place for me has to do with gun violence and gun control in America.  I want to avoid oversimplification and reductionism, but it seems to me that in order to understand the peculiar nature of gun violence in America you have to understand the history.  And I think there is more to understand than what the Second Amendment meant to the Founding Fathers, or the role of hunting and home defense in colonial and frontier society.

One huge thing gets overlooked when we talk about American gun culture. For about a hundred years after the Civil War, an entire section of our country was ruled by terrorism.  It was a peculiarly American form of public/private partnership. The entire American South was governed by private terrorism in league with government terrorism.  This is not hyperbole.  It is a plain statement of fact.  Black people were oppressed through a public-private collaboration in terrorism.  Whites were kept in line by the same means.  Until you absorb the meaning of that, you can’t begin to understand the meaning of guns in our culture.

Let me pause on this a moment. President Obama recently memorably observed, with regard to the seemingly endless series of almost daily mass murders by firearm that occur in the United States, it doesn’t happen in other places. Well, in fact it does, but not in very many places. Not very many places share a similar, recent history of such severe repression of such a large proportion of the population over such a large extent of the nation’s territory by such a seamless partnership of governmental and private terrorism. One thinks of South Africa during apartheid. Nicaragua, in the death squad era. Usually government reserves for itself a monopoly of violence. In the Jim Crow South, that was not the case.

This means that such technical gun control measures as limits on magazine capacity, banning of private ownership of military style weaponry, and universal background checks – all of which seem like commonsensical, good ideas to me – are somewhat beside the point. It is a form of swimming against the current.  The NRA, I am sad to say, is partly right.  Guns only kill people when people use them for that.  But the NRA’s take on this is a lie, because the NRA wants you to think that people act as isolated individuals.  The lone crazed gunman or the vicious outlaw, what can you do about that?  But that’s not the whole story.  People are social beings.  We live in a society in which, for broad swathes of its members, guns are an ancient and accepted tool of social control.  There’s a reason many Americans tend to think you can solve a political or social problem by shooting at it.  They’re not crazy.  It’s a strategy that worked for them for a hundred years or more.  And of course the poison spreads.  You don’t have to be a lineal descendant of Nathaniel Bedford Forrest to be infected.  I am fairly sure that the first-generation son of Pakistani immigrants who perpetrated today’s San Bernardino mass murders will be found to have well acculturated himself to this. The Southern model of terrorism will have found many students, even unwitting ones.

The Jim Crow terroristic state arose after the South was rid of Reconstruction and Southern whites once again seized exclusive control of the apparatus of government.  The nongovernmental terrorists, such as the KKK, were ready and waiting for this.  Since federal power had destroyed the ability of southern government to re-enslave blacks, and private actors did not have the power to accomplish re-enslavement without at least the acquiescence of the state, it was necessary to form a private/public partnership to exert totalitarian control over blacks and to suppress white dissent.  For the period of Jim Crow, government terrorism and terrorism by private groups were mutually permeable phenomena, linked and in service to the same cause. This worked at least until the 1960s, when the machinery of government began to be pried loose once again from the hands of the white supremacists, and the private arm of the Southern terrorist machine was driven underground.  But cultures do not change as quickly as laws.

The private actors in the public/private terrorist state had lost their investment in government.  The government was no longer theirs. Through the experience of their own collaborative efforts, they knew what government can be turned to, and they had reason to fear that it would be turned on them. Since the line between official and non-official terrorism had been, in their experience, so indistinct, they had little or no conception of government as an entity apart and separate from the classes that controlled it. That is the root of the otherwise difficult to explain meme that “gun control means the feds are going to take our guns away; we are the bulwark against tyrrany.”  It seems laughable when the gun interest claims that private gun ownership is a counterweight to overwheening government power.  We rightly scoff and say tell that to the marines.  No sane person thinks that an unorganized mob of gun owners is going to be able to combat the U.S. armed forces.  It wasn’t even true in the age of Jefferson and Madison, as Daniel Shays learned to his chagrin, let alone today. But that is not the point.  The point is that the terrorist state’s private partners, having lost control of the state, are thrown back upon their own devices.  Their society, evolved in a pervasively terrorist regime, had little experience of a government of laws, a government relatively free of corruption, a government grounded in civil liberties.  These are all meaningless abstractions to them.  What has meaning to them is the knock on the door in the middle of the night, because that was their society’s reality for so long. Now the government is no longer theirs, who knows when that knock might come. All that remains to them is their guns; and if their government could be taken away, why not this other source of power? What will they be left with, then?

In sum, in order to reduce gun violence in America we must first directly confront and somehow heal the effects of our nation’s history of massive terrorist totalitarian control over large sections of its people and territory.  We must rid our culture of the complex of notions that legitimate the use of firearms in private hands as a means of social control.  Such an understanding in itself won’t do the trick, because American gun violence has many causes.  It is necessary, but not sufficient. But it will go far.  Unfortunately, this complex of notions is deeply ingrained, having ruled so large a part of our country for so long and having been renounced by the organs of power only fifty years or so ago, and that renunciation having been rather less than thorough and sincere, as so many police shootings of black men demonstrate.  It’s a long road to go.

It occurs to me that one way to get at this would be to take seriously the call for reparations to black Americans for the oppression they suffered under slavery and continue to suffer in its aftermath. The point would not be to “make them whole” in the sense of legal damages – what could? – but to engage the entire society in an open and concrete debate about how we got to where we are. It would be a much more concrete, down to earth matter than a mere airy “discussion about race.” Even relatively token compensation is, after all, compensation. Such a discussion, aimed at the intersection of justice and history, would serve a function equivalent to that of the “truth and reconciliation” initiatives that often follow a transition out of dictatorship. We have had our unacknowledged transition out of a terrorist totalitarianism. I am afraid that until we make some real effort to acknowledge what that meant and what it now means, we will continue to murder each other because among its legacies is this: that murder is the way that much of our society learned to govern itself.

Bernie!

May 26th, 2015

I just listened to Bernie Sanders formally announcing his candidacy for president. It was a moving experience. I cannot remember the last time I heard so much truth from a politician, except perhaps the last time I heard a speech by Bernie, or maybe it was Obama’s great “race” speech in his first campaign. I don’t know whether it is possible for Bernie to win, and I don’t really care. Now is not the time to sigh deeply and choose the lesser of two evils. That may come in November, but this is May. Let a thousand flowers bloom! Anyway… I honestly don’t know whether I just heard the standard gospel according to Bernie, ho hum, or the beginning rumblings of a political earthquake. I hope it’s the latter, but the former is good enough for me!

Memorial Day 2015

May 25th, 2015

“It’s Memorial Day. What’s on your mind?” Thus asks Facebook.  Okay: I am sad to think of all the young men and women who have been sacrificed to their leaders’ avarice, stupidity, anger and pride. On Memorial Day I remember all those young lives thrown away for nothing. I am saddened by the so-called patriotic urge to pretend that all those sacrifices had “meaning.” Their meaning is that they were meaningless. I am angry at the manipulation, deceit and coercion used by those gangs of well-dressed thugs who run the world to get our young people to make these sacrifices again and again.

Writing on a Wall

February 1st, 2014

Portsmouth,_New_Hampshire_-_bridgeIt’s nice that the President has noticed that our country has a problem with “income inequality,” as it is the fashion to call it, or, as I call it, excessive numbers of excessively rich and excessively poor people.  In the spirit of the time, I would like to forward some words from a person who was professionally concerned with the topic.  This is printed on a poster in the conference room at the Vermont Department for Children and Families’ Morrisville District Office. David Murray, who wrote it, was a long time employee of the Department’s Economic Services Division.  Or, as we used to call it when things had names that meant anything, the social welfare department. He passed away a few years ago.  Please forgive the acronyms and references to outdated programs.  I think you’ll get the gist.

I was sitting in a Voc Rehab office this morning with a person who is at ETC and has medical barriers to work. To help pass the time I asked what her kids were doing this summer and she told me they were doing volunteer work. Then she asked me if I was taking a vacation this summer. I said yes, the family and I were going to Maine for a week. She thought that was nice and said she had never been to Maine. This woman is my age – over forty. I thought it odd that she had never been to Maine, as most people seem to go there to see the ocean, so I asked her if she had gone to New Hampshire to see the ocean. She said, “No, I have never seen the ocean.”

This may show how naïve I am, but this amazed me. I can remember as a kid headed for Maine for the first time, my parents told me that the water was so wide I wouldn’t be able to see the other side. I didn’t believe them. How could anything be that big? But it was and when I got there I was thrilled at the sight!

She is forty-something years old, lives five or six hours from the ocean and has never seen it. She has been on welfare for a long time and can be called one of the “hard to serve.” Are these facts connected? Who can say? If this were 1986 and I were still an SPOP worker (ask an older co-worker if you don’t know what this means) I would suggest she save up her SPOP allowances for a few months and use the money to go see the ocean. Maybe then I would have my answer.

In the rush of ETL dates, conciliations, sanctions, job placements, assessments and all the rest, I think we need to keep some perspective, especially with the hard to serve. We need to keep in mind that it might be hard to see a future if you haven’t seen the ocean.

You all know there are many things the hard to serve haven’t seen besides the ocean. Like supportive parents and spouses, praise for jobs well done, involvement in constructive school activities and on and on and on.

Our job is to help people see the future. Maybe that should be one of the questions on the assessment form, “Can you see your future; have you seen the ocean?