Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Tribute of Vice to Virtue

There are sleazy, marginal, and dangerous areas in life -- literal and metaphorical -- where "respectable" people don't go.  Or, at least, claim they don't go (celebrities mainly have people to do that for them).  The militantly-respectable, if we can call them that, would have such places cordoned off, and condemn anyone who frequents them.  We're talking about drugs, drunkenness, pornography, boxing, prostitution, cottaging, dog-fighting, gambling... All those resilient remnants of a rougher-edged world, wherever illegality is not so much a problem as an opportunity.

There is a constant stream of factitious hoo-hah in the media whenever celebrities or people in positions of responsibility are caught "visiting" these red-light districts: most recently it's been about the use of illegal recreational drugs.  The interesting thing has been how quickly and how far things have moved on.  Not so long ago, politicians were being pilloried over a few tokes on a joint when they were students; now, it seems, mayors and bank chairmen are getting high on crack on the job.  Never mind inhaling, I'm amazed these guys are still breathing at all.

I used to think I knew something about the desire and pursuit of intoxication.  For a while in my youth, the question was not whether, like President Clinton, I inhaled (don't be silly) but whether I ever exhaled.  I liked getting high, and I liked the company of those who shared this enthusiasm.  Nothing unusual there, of course: since the mid- to late-60s, hardly any young person of curiosity, character, or contemporaneity will not have felt -- and in most cases followed -- the urge to "experiment".  President Obama's "Choom Gang" back in Hawaii was just one of thousands of such bands of idiotically-giggling experimenters.

I love that word "experiment".  It adds a flattering air of solemnity and respectability to getting thoroughly wasted.  "Experiment" is what the upper middle-classes do behind the bike sheds at Harrow.  But, back where I learned the necessary lore and craft, we had no such pretensions or defence:  we simply enjoyed getting high, as often and as intensely as we could afford, and paid the full, non-negotiable price if caught.  Scuzzy little New Town longhairs don't "experiment", they break the law.

The Harrowing of Hell
in a church in Banganarti, Sudan
(from livescience)

Nowadays, of course, I need my sobriety just as much as I need a good night's sleep.  How anyone can hold down a job -- any job, let alone a prominent position in the public eye -- with multiple competing rushes from alcohol, crack, amphetamines, and God knows what else surging through their metabolism, I simply do not know.  It is hard to understand the urge to risk that sort of damage to your body, mind, or career, though it does often seem that risk itself, pure or cut with self-delusion, has claims to be the most addictive drug of all.

Self-delusion shades easily into hypocrisy -- the recent eye-stretching case of the Reverend Paul Flowers springs readily to mind -- and this and the related media sport of hypocrite hunting are major obstacles to clear thinking on a number of subjects, none of which, in truth, has a simple political or moral dimension.  Some of the most puritanical people I have ever known were on the outer extremes of the revolutionary left*.  In contrast, consider the case of Paul Staines, better known as the ultra-conservative blogger Guido Fawkes:
His politics, however, could hardly be described as toeing the Party line. In an article published by the Libertarian Alliance in 1991, Mr Staines wrote enthusiastically of his experiences with LSD and ecstasy, saying: "I have fond memories of taking LSD and pure MDMA, trance-dancing and thinking that I had turned into a psychedelic, orgiastic wisp of smoke – it was the most staggeringly enjoyable, mind-warping experience I have ever had. The only word to describe it is WOW!"

He suggested that many Tories "would benefit from taking drugs, particularly Thatcherites", adding: "Couldn't we put acid in the punch at the Young Conservatives ball and then really have a party?"

As a father of two daughters aged four and two, he has since changed his views, admitting: "I don't want my daughters to do that kind of stuff."

From an article in the Daily Telegraph, 19/4/2009
That Rave Scene generation took their "experimentation" to a whole new level, qualitatively, quantitatively, and demographically.  There's a cohort of people of all political stripes in public life, now in their 40s, whose idea of a good time resembles the kind of interrogation-by-disorientation techniques that even the CIA would disown.  Will civilisation be safe in the hands of these brain-addled monsters?  We'd better hope so, as they are next in the queue for high office.

Krazy Kat, by G.J. Herriman

But, to get back to hypocrisy.  It was François de La Rochefoucauld (1613-80) who proposed that "hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue".  Very nice, your lordship.  But, 500 years on, fear of being hounded by the media has led to a paralysis of public discourse that goes way beyond any clerically-induced hypocrisy.  There's a strategic, fearful political silence on many subjects where rational debate is badly needed.  The foolish, expensive, unwinnable "War on Drugs" is just one of the more obvious cases.  Is it not ridiculous that policy-makers with a "past" (i.e. most of them) should be afraid to argue, let's say, for the legalisation of cannabis, simply out of fear of what the Daily Mail might dig up and how its readers might react? Is a vote-winning "zero tolerance" policy on assorted human weaknesses worth the consequent price in organized crime, exploitation, alienation, and wasted tax-money?

Perhaps what we need is a National New Start Day, when every politician and public figure who has a harmless little secret in their past -- an affair or two, some minor expenses fiddling, that unfortunate misunderstanding with the goat -- can own up en masse and be granted amnesty from media witch-hunting.  Let's get it all out in the open, and let the disinfectant of sunlight do its healing work.  Let's make this minor stuff deeply boring, and let the media concentrate on the heavy-duty bad stuff that happens on those darkest city streets where depravity accosts liberty at every turn.

I'm sure Chris Huhne would back the idea. In another of La Rochefoucauld's maxims, "Most of our faults are more pardonable than the means we use to conceal them".  Sound about right, Chris?

"Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing there is a field. I will meet you there."
Jalal al-Din Rumi
"... And don't be late"
Jimi Hendrix

* FWIW, I think a "puritan" is someone who regards any spectrum that goes from "depravity" to "virtue" as a slippery slope, rather than a bell curve.  To a puritan, the only safe answer to, say, habitual drunkenness is abstinence.  To a more radical kind of puritan, the difference between, say, prostitution and conventional patriarchal marriage or slavery and waged labour is not so much one of degree as of semantics.  Sometimes puritans have a point.


Zouk Delors said...


Mike C. said...


Sure -- it's one of those places where "all of the above" can take place, plus guys give each other concussion for cash. I suppose bare-knuckle bouts seem more raw, but boxing is plenty sleazy, and quite a few people would like to see it banned.


Zouk Delors said...

Most of "the above" can take place in your living room, but that's not really an argument for banning living rooms.

Actually, bare-knuckle is less dangerous because although more cuts and broken fingers are more likely, the extra impact of 16oz gloves increases the brain damage from repeated shocks to the brain case - the cause of "punch drunkenness".

I guess the sooner the Soton boffins create boxing robots the better.

Mike C. said...

For robots, humans, and the atavistic thrills of boxing, it's worth seeking out "Unfinished Business", episode 9 of season 3 of "Battlestar Galactica". Though I guess it doesn't make any sense at all unless you've seen the preceding series and episodes...