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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 29th April 2015

FULL DISCLOSURE. I actually drafted this piece early in March but I held it back until I had finished reading the whole book. I’ve now done that and will write up the experience for tomorrow.

It has become almost a traditional part of Sunday to watch the Twitter exchange between Peter Hitchens and whoever has decided to point out the flaws in his latest column for the Mail on Sunday. Sometimes, I’ll join in though I know the futility of it. I did think I should have another look at the claims and arguments made in his book ‘The War We Never Fought’. It’s worth saying that I don’t expect these pieces to be of great interest at this time but I wanted to be able to respond the next time Hitchens holds up his book as being the evidence for his beliefs.

In the first piece, I noted that I had made 34 annotations on the text in the first two chapters and dealt with 5 of them. I’m now twelve chapters in and have not tried to count the number of points I marked for further examination.
I’ll need to be much more succinct if I’m going to continue to examine each point without writing my own book. Let’s try.

We’re still in introductory territory with Hitchens trying to establish that there has been widespread moral collapse since Christianity lost its grip on people’s lives. For this argument to stand he must establish that things are different. He states that;

‘[Mind-altering drugs] are at the heart of the new belief in undeferred gratification.’

It is as if he’d never heard of the ‘gin palaces’ that, early in the 19th century, grew from the 18th century’s gin shops. Or never read ‘Confessions of an Opium Eater’. Never heard the term ‘Great Binge’ to refer to the period covering the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries. Doesn’t realise that alcohol prohibition in the USA resulted from the belief that too many people were seeking ‘undeferred gratification’ with booze.

Content that he has established that a) things have never been worse and b) ‘undeferred gratification’ has been the driver for this worsening, Hitchens moves to a core theme; that drug use has been legalised by stealth.

He writes about the ‘pretence’ that ‘drug users still face serious legal repression’. It is true that very few people charged with simple possession of cannabis are sent to prison, though, if I’m being succinct, I can’t go into the question of how often simple possession is charged as intention to supply. But, it doesn’t matter how few people are imprisoned for simple possession. The resulting damage to future life chances resulting from any period of imprisonment is out of all proportion.

My next note refers to a quote that Hitchens includes from Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’. It’s an odd choice for Hitchens because Bloom writes about the ‘exaltation naturally attached to the completion of the greatest endeavours’. My thesaurus offers ‘intoxication’ as a synonym for ‘exaltation’ and Hitchens maintains that intoxication is a bad thing.

The difficulty with including quotations in one’s own work is what to do if the quote goes further than one’s own beliefs. Excising the offending part may make the quote clumsy but leaving it in may lead people to assume the current author subscribes to the views of the quoted author. Let’s not forget that sometimes, people will build in deniability by using a quotation to express a view they know to be controversial.

The quote Hitchens includes from Bloom goes on to include examples of that exaltation from ‘the greatest endeavours’ the first being ‘victory in a just war’.

But the quote from Bloom that stands out is;

‘In my experience, students who have had a serious fling with drugs – and gotten over it – find it difficult to have enthusiasms or great expectation.’

There are two things to note in that sentence. ‘In my experience’ is no way to construct an argument because no-one else shares that experience so it is hard to question the point made based on personal experience. Claiming points based on ‘in my experience’ is claiming nothing.

And then there is the weasel word ‘serious’. Suggesting that former drug users have no enthusiasm and under-achieve is, of course, a nonsense. You only have to look at the pack of cards created by Release showing how many drug users have gone on to great careers to see that drug use does not necessarily impact future performance. But, Bloom is only writing about ‘serious’ users.

There’s a poster in my GP’s waiting room that says 9 out of 10 people can be cured of bowel cancer if it is discovered early. I always wonder if the definition of ‘early’ is the stage where 9 out of 10 people are cured. I suspect that, for Bloom and, by proxy, Hitchens, a successful former cannabis user was never ‘serious’. The widespread information about President Obama’s drug use as a young man, to take just one example, suggests that, if Bloom doesn’t think he was a serious user, then the number of serious users of concern to Bloom is very small.

Towards the end of the first chapter, Hitchens re-asserts his core, and false, position; that the ‘war on drugs’ has not failed because it has never been fought.

He contends that decriminalisation ‘will make it harder to sustain a competent, thoughtful, self-disciplined, hard-working and efficient society’. Reading his thoughts about the need for a return to strict ‘Christian values’ suggests that what he means by this is a compliant proletariat that knows its place and takes its orders from its superiors.  

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