On Journalism

In trying to end a protracted battle, one which is being carried out by entrenched powers who have not wavered in half a century, we have to use diverse tactics. We have to take aim at the foundations. The “Drug War”, and those who carry out its aims, are empowered by legislation. So there is a political battle to be waged in seeking to change this legislation. But before we can be successful in that campaign, we have to change the way society views the issue: we have to change minds and win hearts before we can force the hand of the political elite. In short, one major arm of our campaign must be dialectic, and our opponent is the media establishment who currently act as the propaganda arm of the State.

In our pursuit of a new society, we should seek to encourage a new journalism. I have written about what this journalism might look like:

(Against false objectivism and the sterilization of journalism.)

Humanist Journalism
April 27, 2015
Journalist as Human Being; Journalism as morally passionate.

Journalism today is largely cold, sterile, and unfeeling.

When one reads of drug raids and court trials on a daily basis, one gets very little sense that he is reading about real human beings. A paramilitary raid in the pre-dawn hours involves fear, pain, hatred and agony. A lengthy incarceration involves existential despair. These human elements are strangely absent from the reporting on the drug war, and all that remains are phrases like, ‘Man arrested in pre-dawn hours’. No tears, no suffering, nothing visceral, just another raid.

When one reads of the addict population, they are reading about an abstraction which does not think or feel. Millions of human beings, with their individual hopes and desires and insecurities are reduced with the utmost crudity to a series of statistics, to one big, unfeeling, unreal “problem” requiring policy prescriptions.

To me, good journalism, like good fiction, deals with that heaviest of subjects: what it is to be alive and human, here and now. The personality, the philosophy, the thoughts and feelings of a man arrested on drug charges are as significant a component of the Truth as the quantity of cocaine or methamphetamine that was found in his home. That he speaks with a lisp, that he is a David Bowie obsessive, that he loves his daughter, that he thinks she’s precious; these are valid subjects for the humanist journalist. Because to the humanist, this man is not simply another drug trial, he is not possession and he is not intent to distribute but a human being.

Whom is it that you’ve dragged from his bed? What has he been forced to leave behind? That’s what I want to know. I do not give two fucks how much methamphetamine was in his drawer or the boot of his car.

This is a large part of why I write. I know the drug using population intimately. They are my friends and family. They are the beautiful and complicated human beings who make up the tapestry of my life, and if I hope to achieve one thing with my writing it is to make them as real to you as they are to me. I hope to illuminate the human constituents of this mess we call the Drug War. I hope, through long suffering, to inspire an iota of empathy in the docile public who sanction their repression.

One of my friends died recently. He was awaiting trial, having been charged with importing “controlled substances,” and was facing a minimum of nine years in Federal prison. Never the happiest of individuals, he was now distraught and terrified. Life as he knew it had been ground under the boot of the United States government, and so he spent much of what time was left to him consuming alcohol and benzodiazepines to numb his burden. One morning he asphyxiated on his vomit and died. His family heard him snoring at seven, and by nine he was gone.

Among the last words he said to me, when I admonished him to be careful mixing those two substances, were these:

[21:57:54] <charles> sometime it’s just..l

[21:57:57] <charles> nice to let go

“It is,” I replied. “For everyone.” Ah, poor encumbered soul, he only wanted to let go. And now he’s dead.

I know how the orthodoxy of journalism would have referred to him. To them, he was “a man in the greater Chicagoland area facing trial for the importation of controlled substances”. To me, he was a beautiful and complicated human being. He was my friend. He did not deserve to be caged or interrogated or hectored by unfeeling authorities and he did not deserve to die.

Charles was the most meticulous drug user I ever knew, to the extent that it bothered me, a passionate advocate of harm reduction and responsible drug use. He kept a log of his every dose, with comments and miscellania. A lot of my friends simply eat bars of Xanax, like candy, but he would buy grams of powder and carefully lay it on blotter paper using an alcohol solution; and he would dutifully record the amount in his log, to the third decimal place – to the microgram, for Christ’s sake.

I hope the coroner found a more specific time for his death than “between seven and nine”. That doesn’t seem a very fitting conclusion to his logs.

Anyway, there’s a story for you. Don’t tell me how many labs the DEA has busted this quarter; I don’t want to know.

What I’m suggesting is essentially realism: to describe this mess as accurately as the English language can be made to describe it, which means describing not only the machinations of power or troop movements such as one finds in military history but the real, visceral, and above all subjective experience of the human beings involved.

I am also suggesting a revival of a movement which was called New Journalism in the 1960’s, which put the journalist as an individual human being at the fore. I am not a sober, impartial abstraction; I write from my own unique perspective of the world. I write as a friend and ally of drug users. I write as a drug user myself. I write as someone who has been high, to a greater or lesser extent, on something or other, for part or all, of most days for some seven or eight years. I write as one upon whom the political establishment has declared war with the tacit or explicit approval of the population.

And this is, as they rightly say, a war. But it is a hugely one-sided war, being fought against people that I love and who, unarmed and unmedicated, without that warmongering instinct, are losing badly; economically, socially, spiritually. I intend to fight. As a propagandist for Love and for Peace. As an articulate, drug-using adult. As a voice for the voiceless.

This is perhaps the most important point. We’re discussing an issue which has caused a monumental amount of pain, despair, death, disease, and misery, and for the most part it is written about dispassionately. This is why the general public are allowed to comfortably support the war: because they are shielded from the brutal reality. This reality, which can only be expressed with a degree of subjectivity, must be brought to light; it must be broadcast far and wide.

But that is not all that is wrong with our journalism. It is also incompetent to a comical degree. There is almost no information presented, plenty of outright falsehoods, and generally nothing of substance. I outlined what a more substantial view of the drug issue might look like in an article titled ‘Towards a New Journalism’…

From ‘Towards a New Journalism’
February 25, 2015

I contend that it is the role of journalists to inform, and on that front the present journalism is an abject failure. To write with expertise on a subject requires expert knowledge, and the issue of drugs, and the drug war, are above all else multidisciplinary. The competent journalist of the drug war must, then, be a student of relevant disciplines. They needn’t be an expert in all of the relevant fields, but they should be aware of what the experts in these fields are saying.

The drug issue involves psychopharmacology. I do not believe it is possible to write intelligently about, say, 25i-NBOMe without a cursory knowledge of its psychopharmacology. And yet, few of the plethora of articles which appeared during the “synthetic LSD” hype made much, if any, mention of the drug’s effects. Little examination was given to its safety profile, which is quite a poor safety profile indeed, except to say that it can kill. How does it kill? Toxicity. How does this compare to other drugs of a similar nature? LSD, for example, is non-toxic and, consequently, does not kill.

It involves economics. Intelligent writing on 25i-NBOMe, to its credit, made much of the fact that 25i-NBOMe was remarkably cheap, but no examination was given to why it could be so cheaply manufactured. And ultimately, the economic perspective of 25i-NBOMe leads inexorably to the conclusion that its price (economics) and its similarity to LSD (psychopharmacology) combined to create a significant incentive for dangerous profiteering in the form of fraud – buying the cheap and dangerous substance and selling it at the price of and in the guise of the more expensive and not-at-all dangerous substance (economics again).

It involves both philosophy (why do people take LSD?) and sociology (why do people take heroin?).

It involves neuropsychology. It is impossible to write intelligently about addiction in any way (‘Addiction on the rise,’ say) without understanding what modern neuropsychology and particularly developmental neurobiology have taught us about addiction. Specifically, they have taught us that addiction arises largely out of abuse and isolation, which begins to paint a vivid portrait of the addict population – they are victims, in the first instance, and having turned to drugs are being victimized again. How many papers have you read that in?

It involves history. Every mother whose child dies from a heroin overdose is happy to contribute to the demonization of opioid drugs, and every major newspaper is happy to dutifully print it, but nobody bothers to ask how the tears of the poppy went from being Gods Own Medicine in the terminology of medicine men, carried ashore to the very first colony of the New World by none other than the Puritans, to being a symbol of dread.

It involves politics. Who benefits from prohibition? Why do laws take so long to adjust to new evidence, if indeed they ever do?

It involves, most controversially, the subjective experience of being human. How does the heroin or meth user live? How do they feel? How do they feel about the drug war? What does it feel like to take LSD? How do those who have done so think about the experience, about how it fits into the context of their lives? How has it changed their view of society? What happens to the children of those nameless multitudes hauled out of their beds in the depths of night and thrown into cages? When a teenager dies from their drug use, the mother’s views are sought immediately, but when a father is dragged to prison nobody asks how the child feels. It is worthwhile to paint the many stories which arise both from drug use and from the drug war, as vividly and accurately as the English language can be made to do so, so that we might have a better understanding of the human constituents of this god awful situation, and that we might, through long suffering, inspire an iota of empathy in the docile public who support the manufacture of their circumstance.

With notable exceptions, the journalism of the drug war lacks balls, depth, and breadth. To borrow a phrase from Vonnegut, journalism has been cut off from “the underground rivers that [connect] it to the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans…” It is “content with being a splash pool three feet across, four inches deep, chlorinated, and painted blue.”

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