Sunset Bar, Nashua Montana . . .
On the road in the American Northwest.

European Cultural Bias &
the Rule of Reason

The unique privilege of the pilgrim or wayfarer is the opportunity
to observe cultural customs and biases from a certain distance.
This distance I like to think of as a kind of neutrality, which is
simply an unburdened readiness to move or change, or to correct
mistakes quickly, like an agile biker banks left or right maintaining
a steady center of balance.

Consider alcohol. I've noticed that there is a certain relationship
in the Northwest between the number of gas stations and the
number of bars in a town. They are usually about equally co-present. (Similarly, in the currently booming economies of Arts & Crafts / Ski
towns, a related connection seems to exist between the number
of realtors and espresso shops.) So, if one pulls into a town as
a stranger—and don't forget, on a bike one is always something
of a cultural curiosity or outsider—one would naturally assume
that custom dictates first to fill one's tank, and then to get a drink.

Alcohol:—clearly, balm to some; bane to others. And an ancient
feature of what is in many way the best of European culture.
After all, there is hardly a book in the Iliad or Odyssey of Homer
in which wine does not figure prominently. But what interests me
here, and the question that comes repeatedly to mind as I've biked
through the stubborn headwinds of North Dakota and Montana,
is why are certain addictive substances legal, and others not.
The answer is that there is no answer. That is, an answer in the
sense of a reply that would satisfy the still-unfettered intelligence
of a young child. It is simply arbitrary.

Now arbitrary norms and values in an enlightened society based
on the rule of reason make for bad laws. We see the beginning
of the problem in the word-history of 'arbitrary' itself, coming to us
from the Latin arbitrarius, from arbiter or 'judge, supreme ruler.'
So we must deal, for the sake of a child's understanding, with this
potential contradiction between the ultimate authority of the arbiter,
and the potential unfairness of this authority when it is based
not on argument, but rather mere whim or pleasure. (Note that
what the child most likely does not and should know here, is that
this is done in the spirit of perhaps the greatest of all North American
traditions: that of a simple commoner like Thomas Paine standing
up to and soundly defeating intellectually the (arbitrary) authority
of the King of England with but a single pamphlet published
in 1776, Common Sense.)

So what is a reasonable society to do with the myriad of addictive
substances that when used by people of certain cultural heritages
and with an appropriate sense of measure—these two seem to go
hand in hand—do little harm, but when used to excess by others
leads to almost certain self-destruction? I would argue that we
should do nothing. First, because of the inherent arbitrariness
discussed above. Why are alcohol and cigarettes legal, but not
coca and cannabis? Second, because, when it comes to addictive
substances, the well-intention effect of lawmakers to increase peace
and order at home, invariably increases violence and disorder
abroad. Witness Columbia, the coca leaf and cocaine; witness
Afghanistan, the poppy plant and heroine: both essentially failed
states that will remain so until the root cause of disorder—
vast amounts of drug money—is eliminated.

So, abuse of addictive substances is best dealt with in my view
not by judges and the threat of prison time, but rather by
sympathetic doctors and clinics. At the same time, cultures by
definition must necessarily strive to draw out the best of each
individual citizen by the natural—that is, non-arbitrary—authority
of the demonstrated ethical good example.

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Photograph by Cliff Crego © 2007
(created: VIII.27.2007)