Friday, 31 August 2012

The Usual Abuse

Peter Hitchens writes:

A person grandiosely describing himself as ‘Policy Director’ at the Adam Smith Institute has placed an article on the Internet, under the imprint of that Institute, in which he denounces my new book on drugs without having read it. Indeed, he proudly announces that he has not read it, and has no intention of doing so. Is this what ‘Policy Directors’ at the Adam Smith Institute do? Apparently. You may read it here.

I have this picture in my mind of some teenage ideologue, barely out of university, brusquely giving orders to a roomful of cowed and shamefaced policies, which have fallen on hard times and must therefore submit to this treatment without complaint. ‘Stand there!’ He barks. ‘Underpin this!’. ‘You two! Yes, you, over there! You should be more consistent with each other!’ The poor policies have been enticed off the street with promises of warmth, food and wages, and now find that they must pay an awful price for this. Inwardly, they think bitterly ‘How has it come to this? That I should be Directed about the place by a person who proudly says he hasn’t read the books he criticises? ‘ Outwardly, they smile and obey. I rather hope that Unison, or some even more stroppy trade union, sends an organiser to sign up these poor mishandled policies, and gets them to stage a strike. My suggested slogan for their placards, as they picket the Adam Smith Institute, would be ‘No Bloviation without Cogitation!’ and ‘Read first. Pontificate afterwards!’

I have not, it is true, paid much attention to the Adam Smith Institute for a while. Though the name suggests an august establishment, reached by climbing a flight of marble steps and passing through a pillared classical portico, into a cool and thought-inducing inner courtyard, I don’t think it quite lives up to its title. If its policies are directed by the person whose smirking portrait adorns this article, then you might be more likely to find it, surrounded by 4X4 motor cars, on some industrial estate near a Motorway interchange and service area on the M25. It has long struck me as a rather tiresome body which – like the BBC and the fashionable Left – has confused classical liberalism with conservatism. It therefore has no problem with the cultural revolution, since (unlike Adam Smith himself, who wrote, amongst other things ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’) it is uninterested in the moral conditions without which freedom rapidly becomes licence, and worse.

The author of this attack upon me also appears to be an enthusiast for Miss Ayn Rand, that anti-religious apostle of the higher selfishness. So an attack from this quarter isn’t really much different in quality and nature from the regular assaults I receive from straightforward leftist cultural revolutionaries, who openly despise conscience, morality and self-restraint. It is one of the two tragedies of modern conservatism (the first being that political Toryism is more interested in office than principle) that the think-tank world is dominated by nominal conservatives who support intervention abroad and licence at home.

Now, I would be the first to recognise that it is hard to summarise a book of around 300 pages in a single extract in a newspaper. I am untroubled by anyone who says that the extract in the Mail on Sunday did not fully address all the issues involved. But the author of the attack on me must surely recognise that, until he has read the book, it is unsafe to dismiss it with words such as these:

But his [my] argument – that cannabis is much more dangerous than is commonly believed – was staggeringly weak. His justification for this premise in full: “The cannabis user can cause terrible distress to others. He could wreck his life and the lives of his friends and close family through irreversible mental illness. He could destroy his good prospects. Its use by teenagers is associated with under-achievement in school. Many who fail in school go on to fail in life, and so become an unquenchable grief to those who love them, and a costly burden to us all. Campaigners for cannabis legalisation often claim that the drug, especially in comparison with alcohol, promotes peaceful behaviour. I am unconvinced by this broad claim, partly because of the frequent newspaper accounts of violent acts by people who are known cannabis users. . . . There are also several cases, which I have for the most part set aside, of killings by mentally ill people who have been taking cannabis. It is not possible to say whether they were ill in the first place because of cannabis, or whether they were already ill for some other reason, and cannabis has made their problems worse.”

That’s it. No survey data, no medical evidence – nothing, except some specious anecdotes and flimsy correlations. Contrast this with actual, you know, medical research which says, basically, that it’s not good for you, but you could do worse. There isn’t a clear link between cannabis use and violence to others. The risks of psychosis are slim. And Peter Hitchens may be surprised to learn that there have been several cases of killings by mentally ill people who have not been taking cannabis as well.’ Can you spot the flaw? Ah, yes. It’s those two little words ‘in full’. He has not read my case in full. We know he hasn’t because a) he says he hasn’t and b) he says he isn’t going to. So there! Jolly well shan’t! So he can’t in that case state that he is aware of my case in full, or purport to rebut it here. Can he? What do they teach them in those schools?

I recognise, and in my book acknowledge and discuss the difficulties of obtaining hard, indisputable evidence on this subject. I do so partly because I listen carefully to my opponents in this debate and I am aware of how much they rely on two lines of argument – one that ‘correlation is not causation’ and the other, that even the use of those surveys which tend to suggest that cannabis is dangerous is usually dismissed as ‘cherry-picking’. You’ll have to read the book to see how I deal with this problem in detail, and how careful I am to make no claims beyond what the facts support.

The difficulty is that, confronted with the great cloud of ‘anecdotal’ evidence such as the fate of Henry Cockburn and many more like him, and of the mental declines (charted, since my book went to the printers, in the recent study of Persistent Cannabis Users, and so no longer ‘anecdotal’), and also faced with the extreme difficulty of measuring such concepts as ‘mental illness’ ‘psychosis’ , ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘paranoia’ , and combining that with the general lack of enthusiasm among research bodies for examining the cannabis phenomenon,  what should a responsible society do? My critic thinks we should do nothing.

The jury is out, he says. But what if the jury never comes back? What if the evidence remains forever anecdotal and dispersed, and yet in thousands of homes tragedies are unfolding, as catastrophic for those involved as a terrorist attack would be for a city, but private, unrecorded, lacking the gravity and the media force to become politically important? Must we then do nothing, and watch as Hell strides brutally into the lives of our fellow-creatures? Is no preventive action to be allowed at all? Apparently so. If it doesn’t affect our Policy Director personally, then it doesn’t count.

He states, apparently as fact rather than as his opinion ‘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.’ How grown-up and how awfully brave to swear a bit while making this declaration. But has it never occurred to this Policy Director that others, either his close family, or his neighbours, or his work colleagues, or the taxpayers who may later have to shoulder the potentially lifelong consequences of the immeasurable risk he takes by sticking ‘what he likes’ into his body, might have some say in what he does?

Even the most primitive instrumental moral system, quite uninterested in the abuse of divine gifts or the moral squalor of deliberate self-stupefaction, might have something to say about that. Listening to the Policy Director is like watching an infant running gleefully about on a clifftop, shrieking with innocent laughter as he plays on the lip of death.  Like so many people in our immature society, given responsibilities and platforms far too early in life to be worthy of them, he has no idea of the dangers he runs. But we will have to clear up the broken pieces afterwards, if the dangers turn out to be greater than he thought.

I’ve dealt here at other times with (and so am not silent about, though I am very bored by) the puerile Nutt-like comparisons between drug-taking, a meritless activity innocent of skill, self-discipline, careful training, courage or other moral qualities, and such risky activities as horse-riding (though as it happens, now you ask me, I would happily see boxing banned by law). He then diverts into bizarre comparisons such as ‘What about sex with people in high STD risk groups? What about driving to work instead of getting the train (twelve times less lethal than driving)?' I am unable to see any particular connection between these two. The first (if, as I suspect, he means undertaken without careful precautions) would be an act of self-indulgent folly comparable to drug-taking.  The other is a choice forced on most of those who do it by the simple fact that no train is available, or they can’t (thanks to the ‘free market ’ which subsidises roads and cars far more than trains) afford train travel.

And he opines: ‘He [me] might believe that the pleasure that some people take from driving is more important than the pleasure that some people take from using cocaine.’ Might I? What is he talking about? I don’t. On what basis can he suggest that I might? As it happens, I loathe driving and do it only when I must, though I recognise that some people enjoy it. Though very few people, I think, drive primarily for pleasure, not is it an activity which needs to be justified by the pleasure it gives or doesn’t give. After misrepresenting my position on alcohol, and then claiming that I am inconsistent because his mistaken version of my position is inconsistent, the Policy Director declares ‘ If he does, then he is simply advocating for a law based on Peter Hitchens’s own preferences, and is certainly not a serious thinker.’

I don’t much care if the Policy Director believes I am a ‘serious thinker’ or not. Accolades and criticisms of this kind are only valid when the person involved has proved that he is qualified to issue them. I see little evidence of serious thought, or even of unserious thought, in this construction. But the jibe about ‘preferences’ is surely without merit. Here am I, trying through open debate to influence a free society in a direction which I think wise. I think it wise because I think it would be beneficial to many people. I present in my book, which the Policy Director will not read, both moral (for those who understand them) and utilitarian arguments (for those who are open to them) to explain the basis of this opinion. To that extent, and to that extent only, I am advocating (not ‘advocating for’, this is a redundancy, as this lofty critic of my writing abilities should surely know) laws based on my own preferences. But isn’t that what everyone does, who enters the debate about how we should govern ourselves?

Amusingly, the Policy Director (having criticised my writing), then pronounces (or perhaps directs) that my writings should be ‘mocked’ and ‘ignored’. Well, as Bertie Wooster almost said of Roderick Spode when he found that Spode was simultaneously leading a fascist organisation and designing frilly ladies’ underwear , ‘One or the other, Mr Policy Director. But not both.’ There’s even this priceless barb: ‘Apparently Hitchens has admitted trying 'illegal drugs'. Why hasn't he handed himself into the authorities?’ Well, since my (many times stated) argument relies rather heavily on the proposition that the authorities cannot be bothered to prosecute current offences of drug possession where there is clear material evidence of it, what logic or consistency would require me to, or even remotely suggest that I should, turn myself in to the police over an offence committed in (I think) 1965 for which there is no such evidence?

Talking of prosecutions, a reading of my book, when it comes out, will set him right on another point. He says: ‘Even still, it's quite an overstatement to say that there is a “de facto decriminalization” of drugs in Britain. There are over 10,000 people in jail in the UK for specific drugs offences, and many more for drugs-related offences.’ Yes, but what offences are these? And what, more importantly, are they not? A large part of my argument is that the de facto decriminalisation of drug possession has been accompanied by a propaganda hysteria against ‘evil dealers’, and that the misrepresentation of cannabis as ‘soft’ has been necessarily accompanied by the portrayal of heroin and cocaine as bogeymen, rather than as substances comparable to cannabis, equally dangerous in their different ways, or (in my view) in some ways less dangerous because the damage they do is not always so irreversible. Thus it is still quite possible to go to prison for selling or growing drugs which it is effectively legal to consume. I agree that this is absurd, but it is an absurdity rooted in the whole nature of covert, rather than overt, decriminalisation. My book will explain this to those who choose to read it, but not to those who do not.

I will however, provide here a sneak preview of the closing words of the preface: ‘I can only hope that this book manages to open a few generous minds to the truth, while preparing myself for the usual abuse.’

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