Conservatism Vs. The Past

Over at PajamasMedia, Mary Grabar tells us that Libertarians Need to Rethink Support for Drug Legalization, thus:

Libertarians are fond of pointing to the wreckage caused by the abuse of alcohol: deterioration of health, traffic deaths, and domestic violence. This is true, but it is an analogy that emerges from an abstraction. Libertarians argue that the only difference between the two is traditional: we have stamped alcohol consumption with a seal of social approval.

But I would argue that tradition should be a reason for its continued legal status and for denying legal status to marijuana.

… But I would argue that it should, not only from my position as a Christian, but from my position as a citizen of a country whose foundational values spring from the Judeo-Christian heritage. The sanction for alcohol use has lasted for millennia. It has become part of our rituals at meals, celebrations, and religious services. That is a large part of why Prohibition failed.

Marijuana, in contrast, has always been counter-cultural in the West. Every toke symbolizes a thumb in the eye of Western values. So it follows that in order to maintain our culture, we need to criminalize this drug.

The prohibition against marijuana is one brick in the foundation of our society.

— Mary Grabar, PajamasMedia (2009-12-22): Libertarians Need to Rethink Support for Drug Legalization

This is an idiotic argument logically. Factually, it’s an exercise in politico-historical fantasy. The prohibition against marijuana in the United States dates back to A.D. 1937; my grandparents were older than marijuana prohibition. There is no such thing as a tradition of criminalizing pot; cannabis was well known throughout the Fertile Crescent, Central Asia, and the Far East for millennia, and it was completely legal everywhere in the world throughout all of human history, right up until a couple of decades into the 20th century.

Of course, the main thing to say here is really that maintaining our [sic] culture is not a good enough reason for criminalizing nonviolent people. If your culture can only be maintained at the point of a gun, then your culture sucks, and the sooner you stop maintaining it on the backs of harmless pot-smokers, the better.

But if you’re a frequent reader here, that much should, really, go without saying. Apply the usual libertarian defense of the liberty to decide how you use your own damned body, and the usual anarchist indictment of legally sanctioning police violence against harmless people.

The reason that I mention the story here[*] is that it’s another fine illustration of the mindset of a certain sort of conservative — for whom tradition means invincible ignorance about what actually happened in the past, for whom conservatism means a felt need to pretend that the peculiar legal conditions and parenting panics of your own childhood years are really civilizational norms stretching back into time out of mind, and for whom politics is the belligerent expression of an urge to use absolutely any means at your disposal, no matter how intrusive, police-statist or violent, to politically march us all back into a past which, fortunately for the people of Antiquity, never existed in the first place.

* Well, the main reason for most of it. The pull-quote about every toke being a thumb in the eye of Western civilization is something I just threw in for laughs.

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  1. Joe

    This (the Grabar piece, that is) might very well be the dumbest article I’ve ever read. Just about every sentence is a howler.

    The prohibition against marijuana is one brick in the foundation of our society. On a practical level the use of marijuana also works to knock out other bricks, like the work ethic, emotional engagement, sexual inhibition, and the ability to reason.

    I don’t know, but if inability to reason is really an indicator of marijuana use, I think Ms. Grabar may have outed herself as a smoker of the demon weed.

  2. Anna O Morgenstern

    Most modern “conservatives” have forgotten/don’t care that anything happened before WWII. That was the New Beginning of the World in their poison mythology.

  3. JOR

    If they even go back that far. For a lot of them the world was created in 1950; WWII isn’t so much part of world history as it is a great war fought between the angels of light and the demonic minions of evil before U—-E S-M created the USA.

  4. Rad Geek

    Joe,

    I think my personal favorite may be the sentence immediately following the passage you quoted:

    For example, when one of my college students leads off in defense of the legalization of marijuana, he invariably does so in a disjointed manner, unable to muster the resources of reason and conviction to his argument. (He also does this in his essays.)

    It must be quite a shock to encounter disjointed arguments and sloppy, underargued essays from a kid in your English Comp class. Clearly the most plausible explanation for this is the fact that only their weed-addled brains keep them from turning out the kind of incisive reasoning that you expect from ENG 101.

  5. Gene Callahan

    “Of course, the main thing to say here is really that “maintaining our [sic] culture” is not a good enough reason for criminalizing nonviolent people. If your culture can only be maintained at the point of a gun, then your culture sucks, and the sooner you stop “maintaining” it on the backs of harmless pot-smokers, the better.”

    OK Rad Geek, I agree Grabar is a bit whacked on this topic, but the above argument isn’t going to wash, because: 1) To maintain property rights involves “criminalizing non-violent people”, otherwise I’m able to very peacefully and non-violently wander into your house and get a nice sandwich and beer from your fridge. That’s not violent. What’s violent is when you try to throw me out. Now, that may be an OK use of violence against a non-violent person, but don’t pretend it isn’t criminalizing non-violent behavior! 2) If pot smoking would destroy our culture, then it would be a damned good reason to criminalize it. Humans aren’t humans without a culture, and those living in one have a right to defend it (but not, of course, an unlimited right to do so.)

  6. Rad Geek

    Gene,

    To maintain property rights involves “criminalizing non-violent people”, otherwise I’m able to very peacefully and non-violently wander into your house and get a nice sandwich and beer from your fridge. That’s not violent.

    I agree that if you use the word violence in a narrower sense than I use it,[*] then it will follow that some things I support, including a right to evict trespassers and burglars by force, involve something that you would call criminalizing non-violent people. When you criticize an argument based on what you mean by terms, rather than what what your interlocutor (clearly, from context) means by them, I suppose the criticism may be of interest to you. But I don’t know why you’d expect it to be interesting to your interlocutor. Or to anyone else who has some minimal concern with interpretive charity.

    In any case: I’m interested in individualist politics here; not so much in lexicography. So, let’s say that the precise claim I’ll stand by is some substitute that doesn’t offend against your preferred use of the term violence. For example, Maintaining our [sic] culture is not a good enough reason for criminalizing people who have not invaded on the liberty of any identifiable victim to dispose of her person or property as she sees fit. Do you have any remaining objection at this point? If so, what? If not, let’s move on.

    If pot smoking would destroy our culture, then it would be a damned good reason to criminalize it. Humans aren’t humans without a culture, and those living in one have a right to defend it

    Please. No party to this debate is proposing to live without a culture, much less to make Mary Grabar live without one; the issue is that Mary Grabar would like to force other people to live in the culture she prefers, rather than the culture that they prefer. Which is, of course, not a “defense” of a culture, but rather an invasion of other people’s cultures. Specifically, it is the most appalling sort of assault on freedom of conscience. Her need for a culture is not a claim on my support for it. Or on anyone else’s.

    A culture can be destroyed in one of two ways: by force, or by persuading people that the culture is not worth supporting anymore, such that it declines and falls for lack of participants. If the former, then of course people have a right to defend themselves — including to defend their liberty to believe, voluntarily associate, and dispose of their own persons and property as they see fit. But nobody in this debate, not even Mary Grabar, has claimed that pot-smoking would destroy any cultures by force. If the latter, then the only way in which one could have a right —even a limited right — to legally defend against that is if they had a right to lay and enforce a proprietary claim on other people’s beliefs, conscience, persons, or association. But nobody has that right: other people are not your property.

    [*] There are, of course, a number of narrower senses for the word violence. For example, you might be using the word violence so that it only involves invasions against my person, and not invasions against my property. Or you might mean the word violence to cover only certain kinds of physical action, which involve damaging or destroying the thing acted on. (But then, aren’t you destroying my sandwich when you eat it?) Or you might mean the word violence to cover only certain kinds of physical action, which involve damaging or destroying things by applying physical force to them outside or contrary to their intended or proper use — so that smashing my refrigerator with a hammer, say, would be different from eating a sandwich, since the sandwich is supposed to be consumed, even if not by you, whereas the fridge is not supposed to be smashed. There are broader meanings, too — in which we speak of doing violence to someone’s wishes or their will, and which may well include considerations about property as well as persons, and damage to the integrity of plans or projects or commitments, as well as damage to physical objects. There are also yet broader, or simply cross-cutting senses of the word — for example, we might talk about violent passions, meaning that they are overwhelmingly strong, or violent disagreement, meaning that the disagreement is very intense, rather than that it came to blows, or, say, doing violence to the text, which is often used to mean distorting the meaning in a perverse or abusive way, rather than, say, setting the book on fire. Anyway. Turns out words sometimes have a lot of shades of meaning. But, of course, if you intend to reply to my argument, then it’s probably worth your while to try to suss out what my meaning is in context, rather than to take your own preferred meaning and run with it.

  7. Gene Callahan

    “I agree that if you use the word “violence” in a narrower sense than I use it,[*] then it will follow that some things I support, including a right to evict trespassers and burglars by force, involve something that you would call “criminalizing non-violent people.” When you criticize an argument based on what you mean by terms, rather than what what your interlocutor (clearly, from context) means by them, I suppose the criticism may be of interest to you. But I don’t know why you’d expect it to be interesting to your interlocutor.”

    Yeah, except I’m using it in the way that 99% of the population uses it, and your using it in some very idiosyncratic way. Most people would say that my hiking across your land is non-violent, and your shooting me while I’m doing so is violent. To reverse those terms is to try to manufacture political consent by re-definition.

    The rest of the post is equally an attempt at “victory by defintion”: for instance, let’s say I get a law passed that forbids people from peddling pornography to minors. To say that by doing so I am asserting a “proprietary right” to their body or pornography or whatever would strike most people as absurd. The mere fact that you declare it to be so does not make it so. Rights do not exist outside of a cultural context, and the liberal claim that liberal rights are different and stand outside of any tradition has failed, because, in fact, this liberal claim is ungrounded and is simply a way to silence the opposition to liberalism.

  8. Gene Callahan

    Let me give you an example here, Charles. When the Nazis were spewing hatred and anti-Semitism in Germany in 1930, the “good liberals” of the Weimar Republic showed the proper liberal respect for not criminalizing “non-violent” behavior and let them spew. They were fools; the Nazis should have been shut down, and if force was needed, force was plenty justified. The result of not doing so was the loss of much more freedom in Germany, and the unnecessary death of about, what, 30,000,000 people.

  9. JOR

    “The result of not doing so was the loss of much more freedom in Germany, and the unnecessary death of about, what, 30,000,000 people.”

    Well, no. The loss of much more freedom in Germany and the unnecessary* death of so many people was the “result” of a lot of things.

    You used to understand the futility and silliness of this sort of argument.

    Anyway, once the Nazis took control, that was the culture, so whatever they did was okay. Because that was the culture and how they did things, and everybody understood it that way. Any whining about how all those Jews and Gypsies and political dissenters were “murdered” or died “unnecessarily” is just trying to win an argument by re-definition and an attempt to assert some kind of liberal meta-cultural standard of judgment, which we know doesn’t exist, because nobody exists without a culture. Right? Everyone would have understood that those people were prisoners who were rounded up, imprisoned, and executed according to the processes afforded and accepted by law, at least in some cases. In the remaining cases they were simply casualties of war. Right? Right?

    *Who is to say it was unnecessary, anyway? Maybe it’s what had to happen to prevent even more freedom from being lost and the deaths of 30,000,001 people, or something. Not that freedom and human life matter, because it’s all culture-relative, maaan.

  10. Gene Callahan

    JOR, I still understand the exact same thing I understood in the link I gave. What did I say back then:

    “Of course, a historian has just as much right as anyone else to draw maxims for practical conduct from the past; the view entertained here merely asserts that his skill as a historian is irrelevant to his ability to evaluate the past in practical terms.”

    And what am I doing now? Drawing a maxim from the practical past. Sorry, JOR, it seems you never understood the piece in the first place, not that I used to understand it.

    As far as the rest of the post, saying that these debates can only take place within a cultural context does not mean, “it’s all culture-relative, maaan.”

    For instance, that liberalism is trying to impose a set of beliefs on others while pretending not to do so can be seen to be true from whatever culture one is from.

  11. Gene Callahan

    Sorry, I meant to say “the link you gave.”

  12. Aster

    I agree with JOR, which I suspect means that the universe is imminently likely to implode. The only difference is that I think we should be perfectly willing to criticise not only Nazis or non-Western barbarisms in the name of universal reason, but should also be willing to hold ‘our’ cultural practices up to the same harsh light, with racism, patriarchy, class heirarchies, and other cultural repressions featuring prominently among the accused.

  13. Gene Callahan

    But the claim of liberalism to be the conclusions of “universal reason” is just propaganda, as can be seen by the fact that, basically no two liberals agree! Not only do we have contractualist liberals, deontological liberals, and utilitarian liberals, even amongst each faction there is little agreement — contractualists don’t agree on what reasonable people should contract to, deontologists don’t agree on what deontology implies, and utilitarians don’t agree on how to suss out the greatest good for the greatest number or how to go about achieving it. Can you imagine if mathematicians told you that mathematical truth was a matter of objective reason and then you found out that they couldn’t agree on whether 2 + 2 equals 3, 4, 5, or infinity?

  14. Kat

    Wow, you’re really jumping around here, Gene. Who claimed “liberalism” is the conclusion of “universal reason”? It seems to me what Aster was saying is that one should look at events like the Holocaust from a non-culturally specific standpoint, that is, one that doesn’t take the myriad of other factors going on at the time into consideration when judging historical events.

    Yes, mass murder is terribly wrong and evil, but if that’s just cold, hard fact, then how did it happen in the first place? The answer, like JOR and Aster basically said, is that the culture of Germany changed to a point where the government going and rounding people up for death camps was acceptable.

    Now that you’ve thoroughly derailed the thread, I have a question. In what universe is decriminalizing marijuana use at all comparable to the Holocaust, or to standing up against the Nazis?? What a comparison!

    By the way, nice job on that head-on collision with Godwin’s law. Usually there are more formalities before some one starts talking about the Nazis.

  15. Rad Geek

    Me:

    I agree that if you use the word “violence” in a narrower sense than I use it, …

    Gene:

    Yeah, except I’m using it in the way that 99% of the population uses it,

    I agree that 99% of the population probably sometimes uses the word violence in the way you are using it. Common usage of the term isn’t univocal, and has to be understood by attention to context and charitable reading. Lots of words are like that.

    and your using it in some very idiosyncratic way.

    If you say so, dude. I could sit here and spend yet more time examining the several related but distinct meanings that are attached to violence in common usages of the word, in order to defend myself against this evidence-free assertion on your part. But what would be the point? If I am using the word violence idiosyncratically, what would follow from that?

    Does it follow that you had any trouble understanding what I meant? I doubt it, since you presumed to know what I meant when you replied to me. And I’d wager that most of my readers probably knew what I meant, too.

    Does it follow that, while you understood it perfectly well, some other people, perhaps people who don’t regularly read my blog or something, would be somehow deceived as to what I meant? If so, then what would the point of the deception be? By your own account, when you use violence with a narrower meaning than the way that I used it in my post, then people who misunderstand my meaning will tend to think that there are more obvious counterexamples to it, and will tend to find their misunderstanding of the principle less plausible than they would find it if it were stated in other terms. Which, if it is a deception, would seem to be a rather self-defeating one to engage in. Certainly not much of an example of victory by definition.

    Does it follow that, once somebody understood my usage of the word, what I said was in fact false? I invited you to respond to this, by giving you some other, differently-worded formulations of the point, and asked you whether you still had any objection once it was reworded. You chose not to reply to this. And yet, if you’re interested in more than pettifogging about whether or not the letters v-i-o-l-e-n-c-e were the right letters to choose in the course of putting the point that I put, that would seem like the most important point.

    Most people would say that my hiking across your land is non-violent, and your shooting me while I’m doing so is violent.

    Actually, if you care to look, you may notice that I never claimed that defensive uses of force were non-violent, either in the post or in the comments following. (You may notice that claiming that all rights-violations are violent is not the same thing as claiming that only rights-violations are violent.) I mention this mainly because it seems to be part of a pattern of riffing on some issue that a particularly careless reading of my post happened to remind you of, rather than paying any attention to what I was saying. (If you want to do that, more power to you, I guess; you’re not under any obligation to care very much about what I’m saying. But then you ought not to pretend that you’re responding to things that I said, rather than things that you were reminded of by some sort of free-association.)

    The rest of the post is equally an attempt at victory by defintion: for instance, let’s say I get a law passed that forbids people from peddling pornography to minors. To say that by doing so I am asserting a proprietary right to their body or pornography or whatever would strike most people as absurd.

    My claim that paternalistic laws involve an assertion of proprietary rights over things restricted or the people coerced by them is not a definitional claim. It’s a substantive claim, based on a theory of justice in interpersonal transactions. (I did not, of course, law out that whole theory of justice in this post. Why should I? People write books about that sort of thing; a blog post isn’t much of a place to hash it out.) The fact that the theory is unpopular is not an argument against it.

    Let me give you an example here, Charles. When the Nazis were spewing hatred and anti-Semitism in Germany in 1930, the “good liberals” of the Weimar Republic showed the proper liberal respect for not criminalizing “non-violent” behavior and let them spew. They were fools; the Nazis should have been shut down, and if force was needed, force was plenty justified.

    I agree that the Weimar liberals were fools. Here’s my suggestion. If you’re worried about the effects that free political speech can have on the outcomes of elected governments, then the thing to do is to get rid of elected governments, not to get rid of free political speech. It seems odd, given the massive levels of physical violence that the Nazis were allowed to get away with, both outside of and through the instruments of government, in the process of rising to power, to conclude that what the Weimar liberals did wrong is that they weren’t banning enough speech and association.

    What, did you think I believe that there’s a right way to run a state, even a liberal one? If so, why?

    But the claim of liberalism to be the conclusions of “universal reason” is just propaganda, as can be seen by the fact that, basically no two liberals agree!

    Oh no! People disagree! Who ever heard of people disagreeing in philosophy?

    Can you imagine if mathematicians told you that mathematical truth was a matter of objective reason and then you found out that they couldn’t agree on whether 2 + 2 equals 3, 4, 5, or infinity?

    Mathematicians disagree about a lot of things, including some things that are quite simple, and some things that are quite basic. (For example, the Continuum Hypothesis, or the Axiom of Choice.) People in the natural sciences disagree about even more things than people in mathematics do. But the simple fact of disagreement, even pervasive disagreement, does precisely nothing to prove either (1) that there’s no fact of the matter; nor does it prove (2) that the fact of the matter isn’t discoverable by human reason. It simply shows that at least some people (perhaps nobody) has yet discovered it.

    Certain kinds of disagreement — the kinds that are common in philosophy, for example — may also involve disagreements not only over the answers to questions, but also over the right questions to ask, and the methods that can be used to answer them. But, again, disagreement over that doesn’t show that there’s no fact of the matter as to what the right questions are or what the right method is. It just shows, again, that people disagree.

    Kat:

    In what universe is decriminalizing marijuana use at all comparable to the Holocaust, or to standing up against the Nazis??

    Well, Gene wasn’t saying that pot-smoking ought to be criminalized. He was objecting to the argument that I gave for why it should not be criminalized. The assertion was that if it tended to destroy our [sic] culture, then it would be justifiable to criminalize it. Of course, I think that’s crap (for the reasons discussed above, about two different senses of destroying a culture.) But he wasn’t claiming that the antecedent of the if-then is true. Just that if it were, the consequent would follow.

  16. Aster

    Well, as for intoxicants and civilisation, I can only suppose that no contribution to civilisation has ever been made by anyone who made use of wine, marijuana, tobacco, absinthe, caffiene, amphetamines, cocaine, opium, or mescaline. Obviously, the best thing we could do to promote the human spirit would be to lock all drug users in cages.

    I personally love this synthetic pseudo-marijuana marketed under the brand ‘Puff’, which is legally sold in New Zealand over the counter by Cosmic Corner. It’s 90% as strong as cannabis, with less lingering side effects. Care for a toke?

  17. Gene Callahan

    Kat, basically all liberals claim that liberalism is the conclusion of universal reason.

    And it is those criticizing me in this thread who have compared my arguments to justifying the holocaust.

    You really have trouble keeping track of a conversation, don’t you Kat?

  18. Gene Callahan

    Charles, if you say so, dude! Wow, such hip levels of argumentation ethics, dude!

  19. JOR

    “As far as the rest of the post, saying that these debates can only take place within a cultural context does not mean, “it’s all culture-relative, maaan.”“

    If it doesn’t mean that, then it’s so banal as to go without saying; nobody denied it, and no argument anybody has given depends on denying it.

    Anyway, if you seriously hold the position that it’s legitimate to persecute people to maintain a culture exactly as it is (all talk of preventing a culture being destroyed in the absence of outright threats of physical extermination reduces to precisely this - otherwise, our culture is “destroyed” every decade or so, and nobody notices or cares except some grousers writing for NRO), then I don’t see how you can claim the holocaust was any kind of moral horror that anyone had a duty to prevent. Systematic, deliberate oppression and massacre have been accepted and sometimes even celebrated implements in maintaining the culture desired by the Serious Thinkers and Masses alike, of any and every culture, extending to and including the present.

  20. JOR

    On the other hand, Gene, you’re right that I misinterpreted your article to imply you understood (as anyone should) that those kinds of maxims and arguments based on them were outright silly and stupid, rather than just something historians had no special expertise in. I stand corrected.

  21. JOR

    “The only difference is that I think we should be perfectly willing to criticise not only Nazis or non-Western barbarisms in the name of universal reason, but should also be willing to hold ‘our’ cultural practices up to the same harsh light, with racism, patriarchy, class heirarchies, and other cultural repressions featuring prominently among the accused.”

    Well shucks, Aster, I know we have plenty of differences, but if you think I disagree with you about this, I might have to go on a rant about the particularly silly leaps and connections that people of a Randian bent often make while engaging in amateur psychoanalysis. Don’t strain yourself overmuch trying to read my soul or anything.

  22. Aster

    JOR-

    By all means, if we agree on this, then I would like nothing more than to lay aside this tedious and unpleasant squabbling. All I have ever wished is some sense of social safety against bigoted attempts to emotionally torture me out of society, and support against relativistic claims that bigoted social norms are a difference of opinion. If everyone will respect my right to stand and speak without fear and I’ll be more than happy to peacefully share space with others here, and apologise for any past callous words.

  23. JOR

    Aster, I don’t blame you for any of that, and it’s not like I make my feelings particularly available for the hurting - as a dutiful contrarian I just take issue with some of the sillier things you say.

  24. Aster

    Noriko never says ANYTHING silly!!!

    (makes raspberry)

  25. Rad Geek

    Gene,

    Wow, such hip levels of argumentation ethics, dude!

    Eh, what?

    By argumentation ethics, are you trying to refer to Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s position on the proper justification of libertarian rights? If so, I don’t know why; I don’t advocate Hoppe’s view. (At least, I don’t think I do; Hoppe is notoriously hard to pin down on just what he means.)

    Are you referring to the background philosophical tradition (sometimes also called argumentation ethics or discourse ethics) of Habermas and Appel, which Hoppe is rather crudely interpreting? If so, I think there’s something interesting in that work but I’m not firmly or fully convinced by it. Anyway, nothing I’ve said in this thread thus far has anything in particular to do with discourse ethics as an approach. I’ve defended moral realism and moral anti-skepticism (and by implication, moral cognitivism, since it is presupposed by realism and anti-skepticism) against a particularly crude counter-argument on your part. But I would do that whether I was an argumentation ethicist, a utilitarian, a contractualist, a Kantian deontologist, a Rossian intuitionist, a Moorean consequentialist, or (what I am in fact) a post-Aristotelian virtue ethicist with a natural law view of rights and with some radically un-Aristotelian moral and political commitments.

    Or are you trying to refer to something else again? If so, what?

    If, as seems likely to be me, although I am not certain of it, you mean the first, then this out-of-right-field attempt to link my views with those of Hoppe’s, with which they have little in common other than a common commitment to moral realism (something I also share with the vast majority of political and moral philosophers throughout historical and contemporary philosophy), and a rough agreement on libertarian rights-absolutism as a conclusion (without agreeing about the best justification for that conclusion, which is where Hoppe invokes argumentation ethics), is, once again, best summarized by my earlier remark:

    I mention this mainly because it seems to be part of a pattern of riffing on some issue that a particularly careless reading of my post happened to remind you of, rather than paying any attention to what I was saying. (If you want to do that, more power to you, I guess; you’re not under any obligation to care very much about what I’m saying. But then you ought not to pretend that you’re responding to things that I said, rather than things that you were reminded of by some sort of free-association.)

· June 2010 ·

  1. Discussed at successisoverrated.wordpress.com

    We must prevent you from doing this in order to protect your freedom « scattershot:

    […] Rad Geek.)  Posted by Joe Filed in conservatives, drugs Tags: drug laws, drugs, marijuana, […]

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