April 24, 2013 | 79 comments
Succumbing to the self-indulgence of the 1960s is yet one more failure of modern conservatism.
When I pray for my enemies these days, it takes quite a long time. Any conservative in the modern world must learn to enjoy being hated by the right people. But I have recently had to lengthen my list of foes, for I have earned the loathing of a group of persons who call themselves “libertarians.” To them it does not matter that I have recently opposed schemes to make British subjects carry identity cards, or various projects to lock us up for weeks without trial, or that I am one of the most consistent advocates of the presumption of innocence. I am cast into the outer darkness, amid wailing and gnashing of teeth, because I think the possession of marijuana ought to be a crime.
As one of these champions of human freedom put it in a lengthy attack on me, “As an adult, I should be able to stick whatever I damn well like into my body. Provided that I am aware of the risks, nobody is better placed to make my personal cost/benefit calculation for any given action.”
Now, I am used to abuse from what you might call the Cultural Left. I am a minor hate-figure on Twitter. Mr. Julian Assange of WikiLeaks personally abused me during an argument about drugs, shortly before taking refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. I am not much loved by Sir Richard Branson, the bearded, right-on genius of the Virgin Empire, whom I have teased about his stance on drugs. But the irritable denunciation I quote above came from Sam Bowman, a policy director at Britain’s Adam Smith Institute, a body that I might once have thought was on the same side as me.
When I considered his remonstrance, I was strangely reminded of another attack I once faced: a one-man roadside counter-demonstration by a smirking individual in a woolly hat who waylaid me as I left a TV appearance. He was displaying a grubby bedsheet inscribed with the (not wholly accurate) words: “Peter Hitchens is a hypocritical racist alcoholic. Spread your bile elsewhere. No one cares what you have to say.”
This was all very flattering, but I suspect his views about what he could stick in his own body, and why, were more or less identical to those of the policy director of the Adam Smith Institute.
And so I have begun to feel a little as Poland must have done as the jaws of the Nazi-Soviet pact closed, and the Wehrmacht and the Red Army held those rather awkward and tongue-tied joint victory parades in Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, and Pinsk. When incoherent basement-dwelling stoners and urgent Adam Smith worshippers are united against you, it is all very well to be noble, right, and alone, but you find it hard to avoid the conclusion that you have, nevertheless, lost the war.
SOME TIME AGO, I became aware that the supposed severity of my country’s drug laws was a sham, concealing a de facto decriminalization that had been proceeding for more than 40 years. This led me to examine a second mystery. What on earth, I wondered, could be the purpose of the repeated claims, in broadcasting, in the intelligent magazines, and on op-ed pages of major newspapers, that we were in fact enduring a Draconian prohibition regime? The authors of these arguments were clever and apparently informed. I wrote a book showing clearly that they were wrong, packed with unimpeachable historical research. It was almost universally unreviewed, though it had a reputable publisher, was ably publicized, and I am not completely obscure in my own country. After a while, the waters of silence closed over it, and it was as if it had never been written. The incessant lie about “prohibition” was merrily repeated by people who must know better, and equally merrily accepted by conventional wisdom. I eventually came to the conclusion that I had been foolishly getting in the way of a movement whose time was about to come, one in which supposed conservatives were united with radicals of the 1960s Cultural Revolution for a single end.
Their aim is the final destruction of international treaties, and then of national laws, which prevent the commercial sale and exploitation of marijuana. These laws have already been greatly undermined. In my country this has been achieved by the deliberate failure of police, prosecutors, and courts to enforce the law against possession, so that in practice marijuana is more decriminalized in London than it is in Amsterdam. In the U.S. it has been attained by the hilarious falsehood known as “medical marijuana,” originally promoted by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) as a “red herring to give marijuana a good name.”*
But this process can go no further until the United Nations and several national governments can be persuaded to abandon laws against this drug which have been in place for nearly a century. Those interested in the origin of those laws should consult Malcolm Muggeridge’s 1972 autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time in which he jeered at the “respected citizens, clergymen, purported scientific investigators and other ostensibly informed and enlightened persons” whose apologies for hashish forced him to recall the “stupefied faces and inert minds,” resulting from marijuana use, which he had seen among students during the 1920s in Cairo. He described the legalization campaign as an instance of “the death wish at the heart of our way of life.”
What is most striking is the way in which that death wish has now spread from what might loosely have been called the Cultural Left to embrace the conservative, or neoconservative (or perhaps more accurately neo-liberal) right—so that, nowadays, British upper-middle-class newspapers such as the Times and the Daily Telegraph openly sympathize with the relaxation of the drug laws, as does the Economist, and their readers are not outraged or upset.
The left, or what remains of it, is now just a political vehicle for urban bourgeois bohemians who want to remove the remaining legal, moral, and customary obstacles to self-indulgence they embraced half a century ago, dressed up as militant rationalism. It is easy to see why they are happy with the legalization of marijuana.
The old, socially conservative left of temperance and working-class self-improvement, often rooted in the churches, has largely vanished. The ascetic, self-disciplined left of the Bolshevik sort, whether Trotskyist or Stalinist, has also withered away thanks to the failure of proletarian revolution and of its last best hope, Third World socialism.
What is really startling is that conservatism now has no moral core resistant to the idea of mass self-stupefaction. The dogma of “libertarianism,” actually a liberal idea based on a misreading of John Stuart Mill, has become a sort of substitute gospel. The only drug that Mill considered in On Liberty was alcohol, and in dealing with its nastier abuses, he resorted to some remarkably illiberal thoughts. After saying airily that ordinary drunkenness was “not a fit subject for legislative interference,” he quickly backtracked. The persistent violent drunkard, he suggested “should be placed under a special legal restriction, personal to himself.”
Of course, even in Mill’s time, alcohol was endemic, and in almost universal use, throughout Western societies. While its sale might have been severely limited, as it was rather effectively in Britain between 1915 and 1985, it was not, like marijuana, a minority taste that could still have been discouraged by firm legislative action. This, by the way, is not to say that U.S. alcohol prohibition failed because it was firm, a fallacy endlessly advanced by “libertarians” to counter suggestions for effective drug laws. On the contrary, it was feebly policed in a country with long and (in those days) unenforceable borders with two nations that did not prohibit alcohol. It also, much like current British law on marijuana, prohibited manufacture, importation, and sale, but did not prohibit possession, a combination guaranteed not to succeed.
BUT WHAT ABOUT this argument that drug legalization is a road to liberty, and that the individual’s right to fry his brains in his own home is equivalent to his freedom of speech, thought, or assembly (or even his freedom to bear arms)?
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online