High Times

On Thursday out came a column by conservative David Brooks about Colorado and Washington legalizing recreational marijuana use. Soon followed the inevitable mocking on Twitter and elsewhere.

The mocking and ridicule was the result, I think, of the tone Brooks used in order to persuade us that smoking a doobie isn’t exactly on a cultural par with, say, listening to Chopin. He put his objections in terms of a hierarchy of “pleasures,” and you can guess that things like “enjoying the arts or being in nature” are higher pleasures than “being stoned.” He didn’t explain why one can’t enjoy all of those things, even possibly at the same time, but you get the point.

He mentioned getting stoned in school and mucking up a presentation in English class as “still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.” He said having such “embarrassing incidents” is one of the reasons he quit dope. He suggested that “the point” of getting stoned was to “do stupid things.” I’m glad I never shared a reefer with him. I’ve smoked pot with several people in my time, but I am pretty sure I never smoked it with anyone whose goal at the end was to do stupid things, even though some of them did do stupid things.

In any case, after reading the piece, you come away with the idea that Brooks and the “friends” he frequently references are just better people than the rest of us. He and his friends, after all, no longer have a need for such mind-altering activities like lighting up and mellowing out.  “Most of us developed higher pleasures,” he says presumably without blushing.

He is right, though, to point out that “usage is bound to increase.” Of course it will. That’s common sense, even if it weren’t backed up by some understanding of economics. The whole thing is a social experiment. None of us, not David Brooks, not me, not you, know how the experiment will unfold, what the long-term repercussions will be. Time will tell us more.

But there’s something else about Brooks’ piece that we should note:

Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? 

Those are good questions. Brooks, and other sober-minded conservatives, have their answers. Tea Party types have theirs. And liberals have ours. The problem is that Brooks, as thoughtful a conservative as you are likely to encounter, ignores the systemic racism tied to our drug laws (for instance: while marijuana use among blacks and whites is fairly similar, the incarceration rate for blacks is astoundingly higher). He ignores how a drug conviction can haunt you the rest of your life. Thus, having asked some good questions about the kind of community “we want our laws to nurture,” it is curious that he couldn’t squeeze in a word or two about what kind of community our drug laws are in fact nurturing.

I wanted to say more about the column, but in reading the comment section (so far there is 1637 of them) I found one that pretty much captures what is wrong (from my point of view) with Brooks’ column particularly and conservative thinking generally. The comment was submitted by “gemli” from Boston:

It’s fortunate that Mr. Brooks and his friends had the option to pursue higher pleasures, and were not consigned by poverty, poor schools, absent parents and dismal futures to take their pleasures where they could find them. For these kids, a poor presentation in English class some forty years earlier doesn’t have the power to disturb their sleep. 

This first-person confession of casual pot smoking is designed to make us think that everyone is equally susceptible to temptations, and equally capable of brushing them aside to develop passions for science and literature and enlargements of the heart. But nothing demonstrates more clearly the tone-deafness of Brooks and his like-minded conservative friends who think that everyone starts out on equal footing. This is a favorite theme of Mr. Brooks: People of Quality rise to the top, while lesser sorts wallow in a despair of their own making. He argued once that it’s pointless to pour money into poor (“chaotic”) neighborhoods, because People of Quality would rise above their lowly station without such help, while the rest would flounder no matter how much public money was wasted on them.

Instead of mollycoddling the disadvantaged by making jobs available, or raising the minimum wage or providing better schools in poor neighborhoods, Brooks thinks the role of government should be to enforce conservative moral values.

See what happens when stoners grow up to write columns in the Times? Kids, please, don’t smoke!



  1. You and Gimli of Boston do a good job of summing up the deficit of empathy and the moral superiority conservatives exhibit, not just on marijuana but on the issue of poverty in general. That their attitude is facile one is something I can attest. When I was a conservative I often thought that way too.

    It is terribly difficult, and therefore unlikely, that people will even occasionally examine the underpinnings of their social and political beliefs. The cover article in this month’s Scientific American magazine bears tangentially on that. The psychologist author cites strong evidence that human beings as a species are much more maleable and subject to social pressures than we like to think, and those pressures include more than the opinions of others in the same social stratum. Mimicry is fundamental to our social natures, he says. When political ads and commentary happen to coincide, therefore, memes are reinforced. The implication is that free will may be a myth, at least for the majority.


    • Jim,

      Thanks for pointing to that SciAm article. No doubt, if mimicry is fundamental to our social natures, there is a perfectly good evolutionary explanation for it. The problem is that many in the advertising business understand and exploit our natures, something we see every day on television, for instance.

      As for your suggestion about free will, I have come to the reluctant conclusion that much of what we think of as free will is not free in the sense we all understand (or imagine we understand!) what it means to be free. I cannot at this point, though, force myself to accept the idea (pushed by philosophers/neuroscientists like Sam Harris and others) that free will does not exist. I realize that Harris makes a good case, but like Daniel Dennett (who considers the matter to be the preeminent philosophical problem we have these days), I refuse to let go of the idea that there is, at bottom, some rudimentary level of self-control that differentiates us from some form of flesh-covered automaton (even though Harris would reject that characterization, I can’t see how one can escape it, given his argument).

      As always, Jim, I appreciate your thoughtful and provoking comments. Happy New Year to you and yours and thanks for your contributions.



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