Friday, January 03, 2014

Savage vs. Brooks

Dan Savage introduced his latest podcast with what was, I think, his most spot-on rant yet. But it wasn't so much a rant, nor was it all that much about sexuality. He began by recalling a particularly debauched New Years of his younger adulthood. It wasn't clear where he was going with this, but longtime listeners may have guessed, from the bar-scene he was describing, that he was retelling the story of how he met his husband. Then it becomes clear that was a different debauched night. Where's the story going then? Nowhere in particular, it seems, this far in.

Then he explains that New Years this year would involve staying in with his husband and kid, trying to stay awake till midnight. His point? Both are fun. Both are valid. But those who've reached the staying-in-with-family life stage have, he notes, a tendency to treat that as true adulthood, as the correct way to be. As versus the truth, which is that different things work for different people, at different times.

While it might be tempting to brush this aside as a middle-aged guru-to-youth attempting to stay relevant, it's actually a really important point, one I don't think I'd ever seen, other than at WWPD, where I've made versions of it on occasion. Although I may take this further than Savage - my point is that the younger you isn't acting entirely in the service of the older-you. You don't want to close off options, to do things while young that will really sabotage your life later on. But you also need to act in the best interests of the self that currently exists, and to trust that that younger self wasn't a complete fool. As in, say a woman who's 45 and single kicks herself for not marrying a doofus who asked (or might have, had she not broken things off) when they were 25. At 45, one just knows so much more about life, yet tragically can't go back and fix the mistakes of youth. Or: The 45-year-old self doesn't accurately recall what the dude from 20 years ago was like. She make long for the idea of having met a good-enough guy and settled down younger, but the specific problems with this guy, well, that's knowledge only available to the 25-year-old self actually living that relationship.

I thought of this in terms of David Brooks's column on pot. He and his friends went through a pot stage as adolescents. They enjoyed it for a time, then grew out of it because they realized it's kind of dumb. Because pot isn't the best thing ever, the government should discourage it. That means it needs to remain illegal.

Now, my first thought - and I'm shocked to see in the comments that it wasn't everybody's - was that the problem with pot being illegal is that the kids who get caught end up with this on their record. And this sort of mark on a record is going to have a bigger impact the less power someone otherwise has in society.

But then there's a separate question: Was young David Brooks wrong to enjoy pot? I ask not out of any particular interest in pot - that, specifically, was never my thing - but because it seems like he got something out of it for a time (had fun, bonded with a seemingly nice group of friends), and, like so many before and after him, emerged with his brain intact. (I've also known people who end up far too reliant on the stuff, but whether that's worse than equivalent alcohol dependence is its own question.) "[B]eing stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure," he writes, but the same could be said of "Designing Women," which was my great vice at the age when the boys I went to school with were most enthusiastic about pot. "Smoking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive." Should we make "Designing Women" illegal, then?

Different things appeal at different life stages. The idea that once you get a bit older, you're in a position to declare the relatively innocuous choices of your youth immoral doesn't make sense to me. But then again, I'm not, I suppose, a conservative.


Flavia said...

This was exactly my response to Brooks's column. I liked the first 3/4 of it, and the sensible statements that most people who try drugs grow out of them and that although pot isn't Brooks's thing, he isn't bothered by those who enjoy it. One would think that would lead to the conclusion that all people should have the opportunity to try (if they want to) something that isn't ultimately more harmful than alcohol or cigarettes, and then grow out of it, if there's a better/different life they wish to lead. But. . . it doesn't lead there at all.

I would assign Brooks to read Milton's "Areopagitica" 10 times, with special attention to the passages that focus on personal virtue. One is not virtuous if one has not actively encountered temptation, known it, and consciously elected the good. Laws that shield people from ever encountering anything that might possibly be harmful prevent them from exercising virtue.

(Also, am I misremembering? Wasn't Brooks against Bloomberg's large-soda-size ban?)

caryatis said...

Phoebe, agreed. I also think things look different from the outside vs. inside. For instance, being around a bunch of loud drunk people (or stoned people) is extremely annoying, even knowing it might be a lot of fun if I were part of the group. And if all of David Brooks' friends suddenly started smoking pot again, I'm sure he would join in.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

The only possible explanation for the column is that it was meant to make libertarians of us all.

Miss Self-Important said...

Whether or not you want to criminalize or restrict marijuana in particular, I don't think we can afford to cultivate virtue in citizens by following Flavia's argument that virtue consists in actively resisting temptation. That would seem to require exposing everyone to every temptation, maybe many times, in order to produce true virtue in them. But then we couldn't really have any criminal laws, b/c by outlawing behaviors, we diminish the freedom of the individual decision to avoid them. I agree that this is what virtue comes down to in Christian thought, and to some degree in ancient thought too, but this is only because law is too general to prescribe everything. Nonetheless, law is necessary to define correct inclinations and points to what constitutes a moral life - eg, the law against murder also indicates that it is morally wrong to kill, not simply an arbitrary legal infraction that, under another set of laws, would be just fine. This is the synthesis of ethics and politics that you get in, for example, Aquinas, and I think this is also the basic Lutheran and Calvinist outlook.

Also, though I don't think this is Brooks's claim in the column, I would suggest that marijuana is a less sociable drug than the other two - it promotes hanging out with other people, but it also diminishes the quality of your conversations with them in a way that cigarettes don't at all, and that alcohol does only when you've drunk more than the amount that makes it a pleasant social lubricant. This is, I think, why people "age out" of pot more rapidly than the other two - there comes a point when spending social evenings sprawled on coaches making fart jokes is a really substandard and even morally blamable way to spend one's time. On that count, so is vegetating in front of the television, and so we also blame people who pass all their free time that way. The point is not that we criminalize poor personal life decisions like this, but that we don't view them as perfectly neutral.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Vegetating vices - pot, or crap TV - that don't entirely incapacitate you or prevent you from being functional the next day aren't uniquely appealing to adolescents. Nor are they things the state necessarily has an interest in discouraging, especially given that the alternative is, what, anti-anxiety prescriptions? Is that better than a certain degree of moderate self-medication?

"The point is not that we criminalize poor personal life decisions like this, but that we don't view them as perfectly neutral."

But it *does* matter if they're criminalized, certainly if the enforcement disproportionately screws over certain groups in society. Should a young person be jailed, or unemployable, for "spending social evenings sprawled on coaches making fart jokes"?

Re: aging out, my completely anecdotal sense is that social/occasional pot might well be more socially acceptable, past a certain age, than social/occasional tobacco. (Whereas alcohol... I have, in my entire life, met something like two people who say they waited until 21 to drink, and know only a handful of secular people who totally abstain.) For a variety of reasons, including the convention re: tobacco that one either is or is not A Smoker, that's, if nothing else, the direction we-as-a-society seem to be going in.

Miss Self-Important said...

But then marijuana is a strange example of mindless adolescent behavior that should be tolerated b/c it's still illegal for adolescents to possess it in the CO law, just like alcohol and cigarettes. Is that prohibition unjustifiable? You seem to be saying two not quite compatible things - children (adolescents included) are generally idiots who do lots of inadvisable things for which they should not be held fully accountable, and they should be subject to fewer restrictions on their behavior b/c of their general idiocy? If they're idiots, isn't that grounds for more restriction on them rather than less?

The issue of whether laws that disproportionately screw over certain segments of society could, I think, incline one to either position on this question as well. I don't know how any drug laws could be said to disproportionately screw over the young, since the penalties for possession and distribution are never steeper for minors than for adults, as far as I know. However, if we believe that some people have an easier time resisting temptations and are just more self-restrained, seemingly by nature, than others, then controlled substance laws exist primarily to impose restraint on the naturally un-restrained. Whom does that screw over more - the restrained or the unrestrained? The restrained don't need these laws, and some substantial portion of the unrestrained can't help themselves, often even in the face of strong punitive disincentives. Don't these laws then screw almost everyone for the sake of some third good - something like general social order?

Yes, I know that adults smoke pot, but I'm saying that there are moral grounds for disapproving this behavior that go beyond "it's just not my thing," b/c being high is a state of stupefaction, and adults should not voluntarily stupefy themselves for fun. I also think watching TV all day is blameworthy for similar reasons. That doesn't mean that there should be laws against these behaviors, but that we can make moral judgments about them, since the law is not the limit of our moral judgment. Whether pot smoking is a growing adult trend, I don't know. I assume all forms of smoking are on the decline b/c of health obsession. But morally, cigarettes are better than pot.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

This wasn't clear, I see, but by disproportionate, I meant racially, not that 14-year-old potheads have it worse than 22-year-old ones. But re: age, the issue with the drinking age, as I see it, is that it's so routinely ignored, esp. by the 18-20 set, that it makes a great many people criminals for no good reason. With pot, I do think that people of all ages use it less, or not at all, precisely because it is (or, depending where you live, was) illegal. But I've never witnessed a culture of abstaining from alcohol until 21. And I think this has an impact on the culture, making college-age adults associate regular socializing with being 'bad,' so they often feel that once they've crossed the one line, they may as well cross others.

As for "adults should not voluntarily stupefy themselves for fun," the example you give is of "watching TV all day," but who says it has to be all day? Why shouldn't adults self-medicate in the anti-anxiety sense, within reason? I thought in a previous thread you approved of this, but maybe I'm misremembering. People of all ages unwind, which is only pathological if they don't do other stuff as well.

In any case, even if the law is always going to be about moral judgments, it *does* matter if whichever behavior is going to be outlawed. That does more than just gently nudging the population in one way or another, but means you can be a criminal for something of very little consequence.

Miss Self-Important said...

But the law itself does not disproportionately burden blacks, does it? If the enforcement of the law disproportionately burdens them, then the problem is not the law but law enforcement? Would we have to decriminalize all drugs or all crimes to even out the enforcement disparities if that's our goal?

Your 18-20 drinking example - how does it translate to marijuana? Is the idea that decriminalization for adults will lead to more use will lead to more underage use will lead to the same dilemma as that created by widespread 18-20 drinking? If the laws have to track the desires of the just-underage set to emulate those a couple years ahead of them, that seems untenable. Lower the drinking age to 18, and you will replicate the 18-20 problem for 15-17 year-olds, won't you? Do you just want there to be no age minimums?

No, in the previous thread, I was for self-medicating that promotes socialization and counters loneliness. Pot is sociable but diminishes the quality of your socialization. On balance, bad. TV vegetating too by that metric. Also reading pulp, etc. Yes, people unwind, but there are better and worse ways to unwind. I think this is DBrooks's point about higher and lower pleasures.

Nicholas said...

"The problem's not the law, it's how the law's enforced" is some kind of defense. Rather than changing the law, we just have to change the attitudes and behavior of tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in order to get them to apply the law with equal force to all violators.

Also, I think the 18-20 year old case is interesting mostly because it rests on the (unresolved) question of whether these people are adults. If they are, the manner in which we approach the question of restricting their behavior has to be radically different than if they aren't, and the "what about 15-17 year-olds?" question is asking about a sort of person the law should regard differently. Even the crazy libertarians I know think it's okay to be paternalistic towards children in at least some circumstances. The easy answer for why you can restrict the behavior of 15 year-olds is "they're not adults."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Many before me have explained the relationship between the war on drugs and race better than I could. But I understand that there is quite a relationship, for the reasons Nicholas mentions.

I'm afraid I just don't see the distinction re: self-medication. Why is it OK for the inhibited to self-medicate in the direction of being less inhibited, but not for the anxious to relax with a bad sitcom/pot?

Nor do I see the higher-pleasures distinction, or at least how this would possibly be the basis for laws. For personal judgments, sure, but laws? Music is a higher pleasure? Any music? Theater but not sitcoms? And Brooks mentions love as a higher pleasure - would that include the not-so-conservative-friendly premarital sex acts it tends to involve? And are sports a higher pleasure? Maybe a bunch of people who've read the same Great Books could get together and try to determine what Aristotle would have thought, but this seems like a pretty futile legislative exercise. It's always going to be a matter of opinion, with whichever things older/richer/whiter people prefer getting classified as more worthy.

Re: age, it's complicated, right? Tobacco's now 21 in some locales, 19 in others. And there are constantly new studies announcing that the brain only finishes developing at 22, or 25, or 45, or who knows. It seems as if the trend would be to make the drinking age if anything higher. While it's clearly not the case that having consumed alcohol prior to 21 (or 18!) prevents you from functioning as an adult or being a Great Mind, even, but whichever health articles insist that's the case. But assuming the new age isn't about to be 40, the advantage of 18 is that it's realistic about how young adults (esp. in college) socialize. There's no particular division between 21-year-olds and 19-year-olds.

Miss Self-Important said...

Nicholas: But if it's impossible to apply the law with equal force and equal enforcement is our aim, then it seems that the obvious solution is to decriminalize drugs for black people only. Decriminalizing for everyone doesn't address the enforcement of laws at all, and presumably the same forces that led to differential marijuana enforcement will persist in the enforcement of remaining prohibitions. How can that be tolerable?

The easy question for your easy answer is, why is a 16 or 17 year-old not an adult while an 18 year-old is? Because even a "crazy" libertarian wouldn't call him one? You underestimate the so-called "crazy" side in this argument - there are plenty of people who believe children should have rights, that rights should be graduated or contingent on individual evidence of reasonableness, that childhood is a social construction for the domination of the young by the old. They might be wrong, but they're not outside the pale of craziness.

Phoebe: I don't know about the anxious. The previous thread was about the superiority of smoking to psychopharmaceuticals, and there the point was that solitary drug use seems like a less good way to alleviate loneliness than social drug use. Do people smoke pot to relieve anxiety? Is watching TV an alternative anxiety relief?

Do you mean that you personally can't distinguish between higher and lower pleasures, or just that the state should not be involved in distinguishing and encouraging some over others? The state subsidizes education, for example, which it justifies in part with economic arguments, but also with moral arguments - that the substance of education is morally uplifting, which is to say, introduces you to higher pleasures than you would likely be capable of appreciating without an education. The government also subsidizes nature conservatories, libraries, museums, and the arts, which also requires first making judgments about higher and lower, and second imposing these judgments on citizens. According the the state, a library is more valuable than an amusement park, for example. Is this valuation objectionable?

About the social behavior of the yoof: it's precisely the slipperiness of the metric "everyone does it" or "it's part of the culture" that I ask about. Yes, right now, 18-20 year olds drink in college, and it's part of college culture. Is that in itself a good reason to stop restricting it? What if high school drinking were to rise as it became easier overall for adolescents to obtain alcohol, and drinking became a more central part of high school social life? (I don't know how central it currently is, but I imagine it's hardly insignificant since everyone I knew in high school engaged in it, though less often than in college.) Would such a shift require relaxing the minimum age further b/c now many high school students would be in danger of having their lives ruined by poor decisions made at 16? I agree that it's completely not obvious what the fundamental distinction b/w an adult and child is, but it seems that even an arbitrary age minimum may be better than this kind of sliding scale where children's preferred means of socializing dictate what is permitted to them and our main concern is avoiding punishment now so as to avoid jeopardizing future employment prospects.

Kaleberg said...

There was nothing wrong with the young David Brooks enjoying pot. I seriously doubt we can lay the blame for his conservativism, stupidity and narcissism on THC compounds. The problem with DB is his sanctimony in the face of the millions of people who have been imprisoned and had their futures destroyed for a practice that has no demonstrable harm, if Brooks is to be believed, and that they were likely to have gotten bored with and given up later. Unfortunately, as a conservative, Brooks cannot imagine that he should or might suffer the same fate as so many millions of others.