Marijuana, Conservatism, and the Culture Wars


Read Mary Grabar’s original Pajamas Media article here.

Read David Swindle’s NewsReal rebuttal here.

I will respond to your post, David, because it, like many of the posts in response to my column points to a very important divide in the conservative/libertarian movement.  Thank you for the opportunity.

Your post also points to a war of ideas, a war that conservative strategists have ignored to their peril.  We lost the last election because we lost the culture war.  I make that claim based on my experience of teaching college for almost twenty years.  I have been in the middle of the culture wars, have seen its impact on young people and seen it played out on the political field.  Make no mistake about it: The Left strategized for the long term and outlined their plans in 1962 in the Port Huron Statement.

Conservatives have been playing defense ever since.  My tenured Leftist colleagues declare victory publicly and loudly.

Many, including those on our side, have simply forgotten the traditions and values that inform the fight.

Many of the young have been brought up on the liberalism now reigning in our culture.  It is a culture that says that all values are relative, that all matters of morality are a function of personal choice.  This also seems to be the tack of a certain strain of libertarianism.

These libertarians rightly want to be left alone to live their lives.  They want to be free to make their own decisions about health care and how they spend their money.  They want to be free to protect themselves with firearms.  I agree with all these goals.

But I often see something very reactionary in the responses that are made whenever laws affecting such social issues as drug use or prostitution come into play.  An apt display is radio talk show host Burnie Thompson’s reference to Andrew Grande [who swallowed the bag of marijuana] as “a casualty of the war on drugs.”  The statement, of course, ignores a central tenet of libertarianism, which is personal responsibility.

I think it also points to a certain absolutist world view, which goes something like “if we put any restrictions on marijuana all our freedoms are at peril.”  But this absolutist worldview is based on an either/or fallacy.  It promotes anarchy more than libertarianism.  It assumes that we are a society of atomistic individuals; it can exist only in a cultural vacuum.  The fact that I am accused of advocating “collectivism” because I favor keeping marijuana illegal I think is indicative.

It is displayed, I think, by your proclamation,

“The federal government does not exist to make the world better.  It’s not here to eliminate poverty. . . . It’s not supposed to try and make sure people can buy homes. . . . The founders never intended a government which would require all citizens to buy health insurance. . . . When government is shifted toward bringing about some form of utopia it fails.”

I agree on all these points, but fail to see how they are connected to the legalization of marijuana.  Certainly, our government regulates substances it deems dangerous, doesn’t it?  It regulates certain drugs by prescription and outlaws others that are deadly.  That government regulation of a substance considered harmful will necessarily lead to infringements on all our freedoms seems to be a slippery slope argument.

Like many of my detractors, you point to the harmlessness of the drug.  But people are not thrown “in jail” for “growing and consuming a plant.”  Surely, you would have to agree that marijuana is not just a “plant” that you would grow in your garden, like spinach.  In fact, a better analogy might the one of growing poppies to produce opium.

Part of the absolutism is the refusal to acknowledge any of the dangers associated with marijuana or the concessions I made about the dangers of alcohol.  In my column I compared smoking marijuana to drinking alcohol, which I think is apt, depending on the strain of marijuana.  Both are used socially, both are relaxants, and both can be addictive.  The debate centers on legality.

Although marijuana is illegal, the punishment for its possession (alone) usually is very light. What legalization proponents (including William F. Buckley) don’t say is that many of those perpetrators serving prison sentences supposedly for “drug possession” have pled their cases down or are repeat offenders with long histories of other crimes, including violent crime.  So in effect they are not serving sentences for smoking a joint in their living rooms as many imply.

Those who do smoke in their homes (without any punishment I might add) say, “Look, I smoke every day and pull in six figures and pay my taxes, don’t beat my wife or kids, etc., etc.” That may be true.  It is also true for functioning alcoholics.

Again, the similarities between the two substances, and I revert back to an argument based on tradition and specifically our Judeo-Christian heritage.  I openly—and non-relativistically—assert that it is a heritage that is superior to all others.  I base my arguments on this premise.

The fact that I am accused of being a theocrat for simply invoking our cultural heritage and advocating for its values again points to an absolutism on the part of these libertarians, and I think, implicitly a rejection of the Judeo-Christian foundations of our culture.  Many of my detractors are absolutely hostile to the mere mention of the Bible or of why we should pay attention to it.

Such an attitude I think springs from an ignorance of history and a lack of appreciation for the roots of our culture, the very culture that supported the founding of this republic.  Like T.S. Eliot in “The Idea of a Christian Society,” I make the argument on a broad philosophical basis.  You can be an atheist and still appreciate the virtues of our Christian heritage.  If you are philosophically honest, you will see that, as a worldview, Christianity was the first that admitted that “all men are created equal.”  I came upon this fact, not in reading some religious tract, but an article by Francis Fukuyama in the liberal magazine the Atlantic.

In order to invoke the founding fathers, one needs to understand the cultural tradition they drew from.  They read deeply and drew upon the rich traditions of Western thought.  They agree with George Washington as he says in his Farewell Address, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. . . .  Who that is a sincere friend [to our form of government] can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”  I believe I was pointing beyond the isolated use of marijuana to the foundations.

Barry Goldwater in The Conscience of a Majority bemoaned the decay of morality, of the acceptance of the once “unthinkable” that “eventually could bring about the destruction of our free society”:  “The ‘unthinkable’ says automatically that because of ‘changing times’ we not only must alter our old methods of living, but we also must change all of our previously held attitudes.  Thus, you find a vicious and growing attack directed at every tradition, every standard and belief—no matter how fundamental it might be to an ordered society of freedom and justice. . .”  I think we see this now with libertarian arguments that argue along lines divorced from tradition, standard, and belief.  The “unthinkable” also concerns those behaviors that on their face have no harmful effects.  One of these might be public nudity.  I can imagine an “unthinkable” scene, of nude citizens in the public square smoking joints.  It’s funny, but logically consistent with the arguments of those who would legalize marijuana and all other non-harmful behaviors. Our culture since Goldwater’s writing has accepted many, many other once “unthinkable” acts, usually to the detriment of our society.

For arguments based on practical reasons, I encourage readers to look up the comments of my friend Tina Trent who blogs on crime.  She gives many good reasons why legalization won’t lower crime rates.  In my column, I also linked an article that indicated that the legalization of marijuana in certain states has given young people the idea that it is safe.  It is not safe.  It has serious health effects.  It is addictive.  I personally know people who smoke it every day.  They started young.  One started after being in a motorcycle accident and used it for pain.  These are people who are supporting themselves, true.  But they are people who are operating way below capacity, who have lost the ability to think logically or to care enough to argue logically.  Their emotional relationships are shallow.  They have lost initiative and that fighting spirit that defends the idea of liberty.

Why now put the imprimatur of legality on a substance that does this?

One of the things that sets our culture above others is that we are a nation of laws—reasonable laws.  And laws for possession of small amounts of marijuana need to remain at the misdemeanor level.  This does not take away our freedom to use drugs in a legitimate manner, nor detract from our other freedoms.

The culture warriors of the 1960s used a multi-pronged approach to effecting a change in “consciousness.”  One of those was to present the “unthinkable” in libertarian terms.  Nudity, sex out in the open, orgies, destruction of public places, desecration of art—why not?  The acceptance of all kinds of behavior, including some extremely self-destructive behavior, by my students worries me.  They cannot articulate reasons why some behaviors—even those that seemingly affect only individuals—should be condemned.  They cannot articulate reasons why our culture is superior to others.

Conservatives need to focus on educating young people who have been kept in ignorance about how our culture and country have provided them the freedoms they now enjoy. As Goldwater said in 1964, there is no freedom without law and order. The debate about drug laws entails larger questions about cultural values.  To argue in an arid, absolutist manner is to indicate a certain disregard for our heritage.

As I see it, this debate really is about more than whether or not you smoke a joint in your living room—which for all practical purposes neither I nor the cop on the street much cares about.  What I do care about is this one more capitulation in the Culture Wars.

Editor’s Note: David Swindle’s response to this essay is now available here.

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Related posts:

  1. Pro-Drug War Conservatives Need to Rethink, er, REMEMBER the Role of Government
  2. Are we Fighting the Left or the Counterculture? Because They are Not the Same Thing
  3. Grabar Vs Swindle on Weed and Conservatism at FrontPage