Ramsey Dukes (yes, him again) once wrote an essay on magic and charlatanism that sticks up, in a way, for charlatanism. Dukes points out that accusations of fraud and deceit have stuck to most of the big hitters of 20th-century occultism (Blavatsky, Crowley, Gurdjieff, etc.), and our response to this fact is likely to be …
- “Of course they’re all frauds. Occultism is always fraud because magic doesn’t exist.” (the skeptic)
- “Fuck skeptics.” (the defensive believer)
- “Sure, those guys are frauds. But my guru is a True Ascended Master.” (the committed believer)
Dukes points out that each of these habitual positions is a kind of distortion in your field of judgment — a deep-rooted assumption that will warp how you will understand the occult without your being aware of it and will send any attempt at serious discussion careening off along well-worn and fruitless paths. He compares this to playing pool on a warped billiard table, which is something I did all the time as a kid, since we had just such a table in our basement. My sister was always able to beat me because she had learned how to take into account the dip in the table’s surface, whereas I would always try to shoot in straight lines and see all my shots get deflected. Dukes writes that the motion of the pool ball in such a situation can be considered in two ways:
From our point of view, as outside observers, the ball has been very obviously been deflected from the straight and narrow under the influence of forces connected with the distortion of the table’s surface. However we can instead put ourselves imaginatively in the ball’s position, and argue that there has been no deflection. For the definition of a straight line on a billiard table is that it is the path a ball will roll along unless some outside force acts upon it. The ball knows only the two dimensions of the table’s surface; it does not have our superior knowledge of the third dimension, and the fact that the surface is warped in that dimension. So, as far as the ball is concerned, it has simply rolled along a straight line.
This relativistic argument can be adapted to the demonstration of [a magnetized pendulum swinging through a powerful magnetic field]. On the one hand we, as outside observers, can argue that we have seen a pendulum being deflected by a magnetic force. On the other hand we could imagine that the pendulum has simply continued upon what IT thinks is a straight line, because it does not realise that its local universe has been distorted by a strong magnetic field.
The analogy that I wish to suggest is this: that just as the pendulum’s field of movement can be locally distorted by a powerfully charged magnet, so also can a human’s field of reason be distorted by a powerfully charged concept. And in the vicinity of that concept reason can run along a path that appears warped to an outside observer, yet appears perfectly straight to the thinker.
I wanted to spend a little time setting up this analogy, because I am going to write about illegal drugs, about the people who take them despite the threat of dire legal consequences, and, ultimately, about the principle by which such people and activities might be defended — the principle of cognitive liberty. I’m also going to have to spend some time in a future post explaining what cognitive liberty is, and how it differs from the more straightforward (though not unrelated) concept of “freedom of thought.”
But before I can do any of that, I have to warn you of that hidden magnetic field or warp in the surface of the pool table. It seems impossible even for very intelligent people to have a real conversation about drug policy, simply because we tend to have highly polarized opinions we are hardly aware of having. Or not even “opinions” but something like pre-opinions, buried feelings that dictate what our opinions will be. Our own views just seem like common sense to us, whereas other views can be explained only by the wickedness of those that hold them. So my warning is, if you find yourself saying “that’s just wrong,” consider the possibility that you have just veered into a warp field. It feels like you’re moving in a straight line, but you’re not.
OK, I promised to explain what my last post was all about — my story about Vespuccia and its “War on Homosexuality.” I was not really writing about gay people, but I was writing about a real country — the United States.* With a few small adjustments, my story is a completely factual, not-at-all-made-up account of the U.S. War on Drugs. The main change I made was to divide the ACLU’s statistical numbers on the drug war by ten. So Vespuccia has a population of 32 million and the United States has 320 million; over 40 years, Vespuccia has jailed 4 million people and the U.S. has jailed 40 million; in that same time, Vespuccia has spent 100 billion dollars, the U.S. a trillion. What I didn’t change was the percentage rates for racial disparities in drug arrests. Minorities in the U.S. really are ten times more likely to be arrested on drug charges than whites, and yes, it is true that the United States is the world leader in incarceration: the U.S. accounts for 5% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s prison population.** To give you a sense of scale, about 18 million people passed through the Soviet gulag; the number of those imprisoned throughout the history of the U.S. drug war is more than double that.
My argument wasn’t just statistical, though; my allegory also offered an account of how the drug war exerts a subtle and pervasive corruption on even those areas of society, like academia, that are far removed from the front lines. It is certainly true today that scholars interested in psychedelic research — the kind of research that is supported by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS — have a hard time getting funding and no trouble at all getting the stink-eye from their colleagues, probably in much the same a way that queer studies professors did a couple of decades ago.
However, conservative colleges aside, the latter battle has been won in academia. Queer-studies papers are common at national and regional meetings of the American Musicological Society (hardly a hotbed of radicalism), to say nothing of the MLA and its equivalent organizations in other humanities fields, to say nothing of journals and edited anthologies and university course offerings and campus study groups and awards and etc. etc. etc. This isn’t even remotely true of psychedelic studies. How many papers on psychedelic drugs have you heard at the AMS?
I once had a student interested in looking at historical patterns in recreational drug use and their relationship to the history of popular music. My student was worried about the stigma associated with such work, and the difficulty of finding senior scholars who would support it. And rightly so: I had to give a lot of duck-and-cover advice of the sort you can find on the MAPS “so you want to be a psychedelic researcher?” webpage, which bluntly asks potential grad students to give themselves a gut check:
… are you willing to accept that your unconventional interests may lead to professional isolation or even ostracism, and that the time-consuming navigation of the layers of red tape endemic to psychedelic research will inevitably slow your publication rate and consequently promotions compared with your peers? And are you aware that the total lack of government or corporate support for such endeavors means that you will never be rich, and you may in fact eventually land in jail on trumped up charges of one sort or another? If such considerations do not trouble you, then read on.
The first bit of advice on this MAPS page is, lie low and infiltrate the system. Which I suspect was the advice that a few sympathetic professors were willing to give the first generation of students to take up queer theory.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about cannabis prohibition, comparing the Prohibition cultures of our own time and of the earlier 20th century. In that post I was boggling at the mere sight of someone smoking a joint out in the open during my recent stay in Los Angeles, and I was trying to convey why this struck me as so weird and momentous about it. Well, you might well be able to imagine what it would be like to live in Vespuccia your whole life, filled with a burning and unyielding and helpless anger at the humiliations and senseless punishments heaped on queer people, though largely in silence, for fear of stigma and hassle. Now imagine, after a lifetime of this, that you have heard that over on the west coast of Vespuccia the cops are suddenly no longer enforcing the old antigay ordinances and people can be open about their same-sex relationships. You’d be happy about that, of course, but it wouldn’t really hit you until you traveled out west and saw a same-sex couple walking down the streets and holding hands. That would blow your mind.
I’m going to guess that a lot of you reading this are thinking, hm, I knew Phil was into some weird stuff, but I didn’t know he did a lot of drugs. That is not what I’m saying. Beware the warp field! The assumption here is that merely to discuss something is to make a confession of personal behavior, and that itself is a cognitive distortion inculcated by the drug war. Unlike the Vespuccians, we have (mostly, hopefully) learned not to make personal assumptions about academics who do queer studies. But we haven’t learned the same thing about those who do research on psychedelic drugs.
Or perhaps you are offended by what I have written.*** Perhaps you are thinking, “how can you compare the queer community to a bunch of stoners?” Again, beware the warp field. Why is it more acceptable for people who use psychedelics to be thrown in jail, denied employment, and have their children taken from them?**** The ready-at-hand answer is, because you can’t help being gay, but you can decide whether or not to do drugs. You get to do something if you were “born this way,” but not otherwise.
There is a hard core of American conservatives that will never under any circumstances concede legitimacy to queer sexuality. Moderates — the people that can be swayed — seem to believe that sleeping with someone of your own gender is OK if you can’t help it but bad if you have a choice in the matter. And so the “born like this” argument was the one that prevailed in public discussions of marriage equality, and civil rights became tied to genetic science. But not everyone is comfortable with the it’s-in-the-genes argument. The belief that genetics is destiny is an artifact of our habitual and unthinking scientism, which I have written about at length elsewhere on Dial M. In other words, it is historically contingent, not a “natural fact.” And as a cultural artifact, it has a particular, very American meaning: you should only do the things you are predestined to do. There is a kind of buried Calvinism in the arguments that Americans find on behalf on any cause they take up. We treat gay civil rights as if it were the prize of a lottery we won: it just so happens that science has decreed that we shall have civil rights. Aren’t we lucky. What if the science had turned out different? No civil rights then?
Nonsense. The genetic, born-this-way argument still implies that the full expression of sexuality is something to which we have to no real right. (What about people who do in fact exercise a sexual preference? No civil rights for them?) A fuller freedom would be one in which people are simply free to make choices about how they live their lives, period. But we’re still far from the point where we really believe that people should have the right to make such decisions a piacere.
And this is doubly true of drugs like cannabis. Who needs to smoke weed? The ready answer is, people who suffer chronic medical conditions for which cannabis provides an effective medicine. Notice that we are entering the warp field here — the warp field in this case being the assumption that an activity is OK only if it meets a biological demand. So cannabis decriminalization and legalization again is being borne along by an argument reminiscent of the “born this way” rationale: it’s OK if you need it, if you are fated to it. But you can’t just, you know, choose it. What you think counts for nothing.
As my allegory tried to make clear, even progressives will shy away from granting true liberty of conscience in relation to drugs. Maybe, like the liberal Vespuccians, they’re scared of being tainted by association with unserious people. Or for whatever reason they don’t think it’s such a big deal. (Maybe because it’s not their friends and family members that are getting shipped off to prison.) My idea was, if I frame it in terms of a social-justice issue on which progressives have put in real work — gender rights — I might be able to put it in terms they will understand. Imagine that the nation of Vespuccia actually exists. Imagine that the persecution of gay people is being conducted on the scale of the drug war. Would you care then?
I wrote this little tale of Vespuccia because I am so tired of trying to explain to people why drug policy is a really important civil rights issue, even if you don’t smoke pot or know people who do. The moral obtuseness of otherwise reasonable people on this topic just astonishes me. You would think that an injustice as vast as the War on Drugs — a gulag by any other name — would be an urgent social justice concern for progressives everywhere. You would be wrong. I have been following this issue for decades, have watched in mingled astonishment and horror as the U. S. has sacrificed all its better principles in pursuit of this impossible, pointless, stupid crusade, and have gotten very familiar with that creeping feeling you get when you’ve been rattling on for some time about a political issue you care passionately about only to realize that everyone stopped listening about ten minutes ago. Wait, it’s happening right now, isn’t it?
What the Vespuccians never learned was that gay people are valuable as gay people, not despite being gay. Even those Americans who acknowledge the failure of the drug war and demand change to our laws still treat drug users with condescension or outright contempt; we are a long, long way off from actually valuing the cognitive diversity that psychedelic drugs (and the people who use them) represent. We academics talk a good line about our progressive politics, but we are actually very selective. We can value difference when it pertains to the Other-Bodied, but not to the Other-Minded. This is the ultimate warp field: the materialist assumption that the only differences that count are differences in bodies.
Differences in mind can only be valued and protected insofar as they are reconstrued as differences in body. Consider how depression only gets proper attention when it is made physical and framed as an illness. Consider how the cannabis user is acceptable if he has cancer (a bodily affliction) but not if he likes to get high and listen to music (a mental state). I myself have fallen into the warp by expressing this distinction in terms of need to and want to. What we call a need pertains to a body; what we call a want pertains to a mental state. Unless we’re talking about addiction, which blurs the line between need and want, or mind and body, and which, in order to treat addicts humanely, we reframe as an illness. We more or less respect the right of people to live in accordance with what their body dictates; they are “born this way.” We do not respect the right of people to live in accordance to where their minds go. That is just a “preference,” an “alternative lifestyle,” or what have you.
Thus my disappointment with the general indifference of progressives to issues of cognitive liberty, which is the right of people to do whatever they like with their own consciousness and to resist attempts to dictate what that consciousness is or should be. In my “mad studies” post I wrote about how academic postmoderns unconsciously and inadvertently reinforce the assumptions of scientific modernity, to which they are otherwise opposed. Here is another example of the same thing. Progressive academics don’t care much about what happens to a bunch of stoners because they don’t see the difference they represent — a difference in mental state — as one worth fighting for.
Of course, talk about a right to choose one’s own condition of consciousness sounds very hippie-ish and is doubtless giving some readers an excuse not to take any of this seriously. Talk of “consciousness” is an imprecise but unavoidable shorthand for what’s really at stake, which is what I will write about next time. But I will tell you one thing right now: ultimately, this isn’t about drugs at all. It’s about something much bigger.
*Of course, many aspects of my imaginary Vespuccian scenario are depressingly familiar from queer history. In the 1950s, U.S. authorities treated drug users and gay people in very similar ways; drug use and homosexuality were both seen as matters for the vice squad. Obviously, much has changed in the U.S. since then, but there are places in the world where people are executed for being gay, and there are still Americans who would love to see that sort of thing here.
So while the main point of my thought experiment (what if we treated homosexuality the way we treat illegal drugs?) was to throw a light on drug policy, it also throws a light on worldwide social policies related to gender and sexuality. My account of Vespuccia is almost but not quite plausible as a description of life in a country like Saudi Arabia. The most implausible thing about my story is that Vespuccia grants enough freedom to its universities that professors are not outright banned from studying something so vigorously suppressed by law. In a country like Saudi Arabia, a queer studies professor wouldn’t have trouble getting funding, because she wouldn’t exist. This tells you something also the United States and its peculiar mixture of genuine intellectual freedom and heavy-handed social authority.
**If you want sources for these numbers, I suggest you head over to the ACLU’s drug war pages. One particularly valuable document is the ACLU’s report, The War on Marijuana in Black and White. It’s slightly out-of-date now, as it was published in 2013 and just ahead of the current wave of legalization, but only slightly. Those who are interested in the militarization of police — a drug-war phenomenon that has radically changed how political dissent in handled in the U.S. — should read Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop. Most Americans only woke up to police militarization during the Ferguson riots, but Balko has been following this story since long before it was cool.
***Here’s a warp-field swerve in itself: the assumption that disliking or disagreeing with something means that you should be “offended” by it. It sometimes seems that Americans are socialized to be “offended” at every damn thing they don’t like. This is true of both Left and Right — no-one has a monopoly on what has aptly been called “outrage Kabuki.” A lot of people don’t seem realize the truth of something responsible parents tell their children when they start going to school: you don’t have to take offense just because someone offers it. Taking offense is a choice, and when you choose it all real conversation ends: what’s left is moralizing and posturing. Indulging in the feeling of being offended stops up your ears and makes your brain implode.
The habit of taking offense is the laziest and most narcissistic of intellectual styles. If you say, for example, “I am very offended by your comparison of LGBTQ people to drug users” or “I am very offended that you are minimizing the suffering of drug war casualties by comparing it to the suffering of professors who don’t get funding” or whatever, it is a way of saying, I have no interest in listening to you or anyone else; I already know who is in the right here, and it is me; my own opinions are all that matter to me. You have taken yourself out of the conversation, and then you insist that it is my fault.
A friend recently texted me a quote from Stephen Fry: “it’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more … than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”
****And before you start telling me how harmful psychedelic drug use is — why, I heard about some kid who jumped off a roof because she thought she could fly! etc. — look at this chart:
Yes, alcohol outdoes heroin, crack, and meth for its combined destructive effects on individuals and society. Notice where LSD, cannabis, mushrooms, and Ecstasy are by contrast. DMT isn’t even on here. If you think that the drug war is about harm reduction … well, you’ve got some reading to do.