2000 Convocation Address - Addictions and Hypocrisies
September 4, 2000
In the summer of 1969 someone gave me and my girlfriend a brownie baked with marijuana. It had an extravagant effect on both of us. I thought a small fire in a woodstove was as large and fearsome (and thrilling!) as hell itself. I later married the girlfriend, my wife Adelia, but neither of us was ever interested in experimenting further with drugs. Nowadays my sons tell me that I'm such a lightweight that even non-alcoholic beer affects me strangely, and I almost never drink more alcohol than is contained in a single beer or a glass of wine. Still I want to talk to you about intoxication and addiction. Clearly, I'm no expert.
What strikes me most about our national policy on drugs and alcohol is its hypocrisy.
It is an organized and extensive hypocrisy, and one that seems to me silly in the small world of the campus. But it is anything but silly or laughable in the bigger world where it is observed and promoted with zeal, money—and too often with lives.
Human life is full of hypocrisy, I know. We tell people how much joy or sorrow we feel with them when we may well feel much more or much less or neither. We are polite to one another, nice to one another, when we would like to scream. We pretend to be and feel many things that we are not. All this helps smooth the rough patches in our shared lives. It spares hurt and bother and allows us to go on to other things. Hypocrisy serves us well much of the time, but not always.
Let me begin with the campus. Over the last twenty years or so, the federal government has used a variety of incentives to promote 21 as the age of permitted drinking of alcohol. Highway funding, in particular, has long depended on state conformity to this federal policy. Gradually the states have fallen into line, prohibiting those under 21 from even tasting wine or beer or whiskey. Massachusetts was an early cooperator in this effort, an effort urged as a remedy, among other things, for drunken driving by teenagers. In this important regard, the policy may have contributed to the improvements in driving safety of your generation.
In addition, the Congress has found it satisfying to insist at various points on the evils of what is euphemistically called "substance abuse." Thus this College, along with most others, has agreed to report annually on its efforts to discourage the use of illegal substances, including alcohol, by those of you not yet 21. Should we fail to do these things, and to certify that we do them, we would jeopardize federal financial aid for nearly half of you and research funds for a number of our scientists. The legislated ideology in these matters is simple and simply stated: these illegal substances are evil and we should teach you to avoid them all. The only qualification is for alcohol, which is evil until you are 21 and then perhaps not evil or at least not so evil as to be illegal. But for those of you under 21, these things are all bad and to be avoided at all times and in all circumstances.
The ideas behind all this may well be complex and nuanced, but they have been simplified, radically simplified, for purposes not only of legislation and enforcement but of official propaganda. These things are evil; teach the young to avoid them. Say no to them, all of them, at all times. There are striking hypocrisies in all this, as there often are in puritanism. But the College is not deeply implicated in these hypocrisies. We shrug and go along with the federal requirements as a formality. It is the awkwardness that is most striking for a college like ours, dedicated to questioning and probing. On the one hand we tell you that we have gathered you here with a faculty of scholars and artists to challenge what you may have assumed or been told. On the other hand, we subscribe in our official capacity to this simplified approach to what is a universal feature of human cultures-the use of inebriants or intoxicants, often addictive ones, by young and old alike.
Last year voters in the town of Amherst made a small gesture of protest by passing a special ballot to remove the criminal penalties attached to the use of marijuana. But of course the town of Amherst has no such authority and so the vote joins others we have had in town to hold out against nuclear power or against trade with foreign tyrants.
You who are first year students will find here at Amherst what you may have found at home: the law frowns on the use of alcohol and the softer illegal drugs, the law threatens and occasionally imposes punishment, but mostly the law lets you do as you would. And the College itself? My job is to speak for the College and I will try to speak honestly. We cannot without resorting to a kind of local totalitarianism enforce the prohibition that the government enjoins. Thus we leave you for the most part in liberty. I will say for the College and for myself that all of these substances can be dangerous to you and your friends. They cause something like half of the fatal car accidents in this nation; they enter into much of the violence between friends and lovers; they are powerful and can grab hold of you and never let go. We cannot easily stop you if you would use them or try them—and so we call out to you, perhaps too often, take care, be wary, exercise caution. If we catch you trading them we will turn you over to the local police. If we catch you in possession of the truly most dangerous drugs we will do the same, asking you to leave campus more or less on the spot.
I mentioned hypocrisy. Are we hypocrites? Not by choice, I can say. We resist the hypocrisy of the government's campaign for clarity and simplicity, for absolute interdiction or denial. We don't preach prohibition but moderation and caution. But the most critical or cynical among you will pick out the inconsistencies and the evasions. We have campus police, some parents say, why not set them to work searching and seizing the contraband substances? We take away kegs when there is no authorization, students complain, so why not go the extra steps and find the other beer and the vodka and the marijuana that many of our students use?
One answer is that this residential campus is lax and permissive. Another way to put this is that it is free. The premise under which you enroll here is one of freedom, personal as well as intellectual. Our curriculum has requirements, but they are few. Our residential arrangements require civility and tolerance, but not much more. We give you choices because we believe that you can make them responsibly. Sooner or later you will have to make life choices on your own. This is what we understand by a free society. At Amherst we say that sooner is better.
I said earlier that our policies involve not just rules but lives. A petty hypocrisy on campus becomes a tragic one when pursued among those lacking our privileges. The very things that seem silly or stupid on a campus-"just say no," don't even try marijuana, wait till you're 21 to taste a beer-have taken on a much more powerful and tragic stupidity in our democracy. Whereas on campus, the hypocrisy is a kind of petty fib, in our society it is much more than that. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives are caught up in the maw of our prohibition of drug use, a prohibition probably even less effective off campus than it is on.
Let me give you an instance of the tragic escalation in the cost of these policies as we move from the campus to the society at large.
On campus race plays almost no part in the incidence of abuse-whether of drugs or alcohol-and no measurable part in the incidence of punishment for offenses under these laws. Our local statistics show, if anything, more usage, more dealing and more punishment among white students than among others. The consequence of this may go unnoticed but it is important: In a campus setting where discrimination remains a powerfully hurtful and often explosive issue, drug and alcohol abuses seem, if anything, race-blind or race-neutral. This presents an almost absurd contrast to the realities in the world at large.
We know that the abuse of drugs and alcohol has a kind of equal opportunity prevalence in this and other societies. Yes, there are differences across racial and ethnic categories, but no category or grouping is immune. And illegal drugs, in particular, are used throughout American society. But look for a moment at the incidence of punishment in the United States: sifting through various reports on imprisonment, I learn that nearly one quarter of the two million Americans now in prison are serving time for non-violent drug offenses such as cultivation, sale and transport. That is nearly half a million people, mostly men, two thirds of them Black and Latino men.
State prisons, which vary enormously with the laws and practices of each state, hold most of these offenders, perhaps a quarter of the total prison population. But in the federal prison system more than half of those held have been convicted of non-violent crimes such as smuggling and selling drugs. Most of these people are small-time crooks caught up in a worldwide black market in which the American appetite—your appetite—for experimentation and addiction is the great engine.
We cannot know for sure how many of our neighbors use illegal drugs, what drugs they use or in what quantities. But nothing that I read denies the evenhanded racial distribution of usage. Arrest and imprisonment are anything but evenhanded. Black people are as much as fifteen times more likely than whites to be arrested for cocaine usage. The sentences they suffer are hugely disproportionate as well. The one relevant variable between races is that crack has been the form of cocaine most popular in the inner city. Some argue that crack cocaine is more powerful and destructive than cocaine in powder. This may well be true, but does it justify years and years of additional prison time for what is essentially the same crime? And while cocaine is the most extreme example of differential treatment, the racial disproportion remains in every category of illegal usage and dealing.
There are records by which to measure arrest and imprisonment. There is no way to measure with accuracy the contribution of our war on drugs to the violence of our society, and of the world at large. This is an aspect of our policies that has only the faintest shadow on campus. Yes, we experience our share of personal violence on campus: we have rape and sexual assault and, occasionally, an assault with fists. Neither guns nor knives appear on our campus crime logs from one end of the decade to another. The abuse of alcohol, in particular, feeds the violence we experience much as it feeds the violence of our society and most others. But there is no black market in beer and vodka, and there is no gang warfare over the sales territories of their purveyors.
But illegal drugs are different, people will say: they are addictive and dangerous and there is no hypocrisy in saying so-or in making laws that say so.
The president of Colombia made headlines this week by saying that narcotrafficking will not end until America curbs its appetite for drugs. Perhaps he is right; perhaps with more effort we will curb or end our national appetite for intoxication. Certainly we will not end it by endlessly arresting and harassing the poor who trade in this for want of anything better. I myself am a skeptic when it comes to any method of ending this very human weakness. Each of us can end it or help end it in ourselves and our loved ones. Some of us can help students or others to end it, or never to indulge it.
I cannot speak here for anyone but myself. Certainly I cannot speak for the College or its Board of Trustees. But speaking for myself, I will say this much: our tradition of study prizes the harsh questioning of the assumptions that we and others make so casually. Hypocrisy and pretense are favorite targets of the critical mind. Sometimes they make easy targets, and we go after them as if to prove our superiority or cleverness. But I do not think this is what is at stake in an attack on the hypocrisies of the drug war. Our intellectual and political tradition rests in the end on the defense of liberty. Self-intoxication is a fundamental question of liberty. To end drug and alcohol abuse on this campus would require us to police your lives as if you were children-or convicts. To end this abuse in our society would require an almost inconceivable level of repression. Questions of addiction and dependence are a constant in human life, and no society has altogether banished them. The human body and the human mind surrender all too easily to the illness of addiction and the materials for it are never far from hand. The temptation will always be present, for all of us.
You in your lives will have to wrestle over and again with questions of your own dependence on substances that may quickly or slowly destroy your will or your body. For some of you it will be marijuana or tobacco. For many it will be alcohol. For some it will be a synthetic drug that makes its way into fashion. Addiction is a surrender of the will, a surrender of liberty. In small ways, nearly every day, we struggle to establish and re-establish a hold over the appetites that pull us towards an abyss.
For me, as a husband and father, as a man, these are among the most important moral questions we face. And we face them on our own. The law can steer us a little, I know; the law can prod us towards what our legislators think to be-or pretend to be-the right balance. But no law and no legislator can save any of us from a will bent towards addiction, whatever the legality or illegality of what tempts us.