For all its positivism and respect for science, this line of thinking has big problems. And to accept all of Liz Garbus’ premises, and her diagnosis, is to jump off a mental cliff straight into 1984 territory.
Addiction has long been recognized as, in part, a chemical attack or imbalance in the brain. Once it reaches a certain point, I trust in medicine that it really is a dependency. That chemically your body has been changed so that it needs/acts like it needs the drug in the same way it needs water. And at that point, your personal ethics become those of a starving or drowning person. Without the strongest will in the world or serious help and treatment, real addicts will, and do, act like desperate animals.
But that does not answer the big question. It asks. What exactly are the ethics of a starving person? There’s Bertolt Brecht in one corner with “first must come the bread, then the morality”, and of course, Christ and Martyrs in the other. Political prisoners in Belfast, or Ghandi in the civil war concluded that starving can be morality. And what about the addiction angle? Self-inflicted starvation is very different from being Les Miserables. Do we line up with the Greeks and Erysichthon, who deserved no pity? Then again, Erysichthon was a rich man. A great deal of addiction is a ghetto disease. How responsible is a person? How responsible are others to him? Not easy to say.
What’s unquestionable is that for 99% of history, when real starvation was much more common, people always treated the question as not trivial. That they assumed a man had to be better than an animal. Specifically, where a starving man is forgiven for “doing what he had to do,” the reason is there is another person who bears the responsibility. Why do we pity Jean Valjean? Because we do not pity the bastard who abandoned Valjean’s sister and niece. Valjean is tragedy and Erysicthon is not, because the former is paying someone else’s price. The hunger itself does not cancel the fact there is a price, which can only be paid by a human being. Even Brecht did not really abandon this. His plays, socialist without apologizing, still required villians. A person bears the blame.
Now look at Garbus’ friend again. A clear Ovid case. A young rich man whose indulgence eventually killed him. We can pity the person for his age. We can pity the fact that one bad choice ruined him where it would spare others. We can reflect that we’ve made mistakes too, and there but for the grace of God/Fate … etc. But that’s Eccleasties. Different book. What I want to look at here is, where did the humanity go?
Garbus picks up the story in a familiar place. She goes over progressive, scientific evidence and concludes that, “for the addict, now, obtaining and taking these drugs becomes a matter of survival.” Alright. I buy it. Now to the ethical state of the man … “But to stop taking drugs, an addict needs treatment, which often involves taking a medication, just as with any other disease. And it is not your fault if you relapse, its not a failure of character, it just means you need more treatment.”
Wait … what?
Look at the extraordinary view of the world behind that. It’s not the science itself that did it. The science does us the service of proving that addiction is as strong as hunger or thirst, and so needs to be treated that seriously, and not as a matter of say, someone wanting ice cream, “like A LOT.” But again. There has been a moral category for this. For 4,000 years and probably longer, thinkers have known and seen how strong hunger is, and what people can be pushed to when scared, cornered, or otherwise endangered. What’s scary about Garbus isn’t that she puts heroin into it, but that she’s quietly abolished the category.
So what happened in the last 100 years? I call it Marxism. Marxism that’s quietly seeped out of the political-system gig, and bonded with modern medicine.
Marx’s first big idea, from which all the others follow, is that man’s motivation is primarily material. That first we want food, shelter, dry feet, safety. When we have those we want stuff. When we have stuff we want more stuff. All religions, national theories, philosophies, identities, are just trimmings or glosses or propaganda. They’re not really believed in, past the point they stop helping you get stuff. All concerns are at heart, physical. So all group concerns are “economic.” Etc etc. … So making man “good” is a matter of getting him his stuff, and making society good is in getting everyone enough stuff, and so forth. All other questions are, at heart, irrelevant.
Now imagine what this presumption, now “in” the popular vocabulary after 150 years of being spread around and argued over, will yield when applied to a time of cutting-edge research in genetics and neuroscience.
Forget imagining. Just observe.
We needed both, I think. Science has been debunking spiritual notions about the universe for hundreds of years. Science has been slapping around our concepts about the agency of stars, volcanoes, atoms, ecosystems and emotions … and managed to keep doing so, in radical ways, without challenging the agency we give ourselves. Ghandi and Christ don’t even need to be holy men for their stories to be compelling. Do you, right there, like to think that there isn’t a conviction or a person you would hold above your really, really strong desire not to suffer or die? Would you call a person who succeeds in a moment like that stronger than someone who doesn’t?
Garbus leaves no room for that idea. She does not even consider the question. A chemical is demanded by the brain. The chemical is thus “needed” by the person. There is no choice at this point but whether or not he gets the chemical.
And she’s not peddling anything she sees as an ideology. She’s saying what appears to her as obvious. Assumed. We are turning into quiet medical Marxists. Or, maybe, not so quiet.
Somehow we’re not adverse to demanding medical treatment at the cost of anything else. Depressed, angry, petty? Take a pill! And demand it at subsidized prices. Which means you sell other people’s things to buy your own. And we personally, and we as a society, can’t seem to really condemn this. Chemical treatments for chemical problems in the brain appear to us as a fundamental need, without which man cannot be moral, and so which he can be excused for doing anything to get.
We don’t even treat food this way any more. Under Clinton, it was perfectly possible to make the case that being too liberal with food stamps was not a good idea. Over howls of protest from several interest groups, we cut back on freebies even for food and juice for people who would no doubt scream they needed food and juice. A rational debate was possible on this.
Yet for medicaid? No. For any and all kinds of prescription coverage on even the most exotic or experimental drugs? Never. No cost is too high. And for each drug, the advertisers say “be yourself again … with Xylex.” Just as the young heroin addict could not be himself, or be more than an animal, without “medication.”
The consequences of Marxism for the individual, which seems to have snuck in through the CDC, probably look a lot like the consequences of Marxism for the state. And that’s where the really scary idea begins.
1984 went into this exact question, and pushed it to its logical conclusions. If humanity is material only, if they are as malleable as any other part of nature, then so is the human being. Then, as Orwell feared and forced us to contemplate, all that we love is worth nothing, because it can all be changed with the conditions. With enough pain and fear, a man can be made to renounce anything. Hurt anyone. Memory, belief, knowledge, personality, are all able to be grabbed and wrenched and made into something else. All we know is just the fiction of animals fighting to not suffer, or to eat at any cost.
Dehumanizing people in public is of course, the first step to convincing your fellow citizens they can be killed or enslaved without a problem. And of course, if we all allow that this is the case for all of us, equally?
“Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me
There lie they, and here lie we…”
I’m not sure how this fucker slipped in our back door, disguised in a lab coat, but I’m sure he’s gotta be thrown back outside, and shot behind the barn.