Pubdate: Thu, 29 Nov 2012
Source: Times Herald, The (Norristown, PA)
Copyright: 2012 The Times Herald
Author: John M. Crisp
Note: John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar
College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email him at
Page: A4


The week after the election, a few of my students said that they were
planning vacations in Colorado or in Washington state. They were
kidding. I think.

On Nov. 6, voters in both states approved referenda that permit the
recreational use of small amounts of marijuana, subject to the same
sorts of regulations that apply to the use of alcohol.

Relaxed marijuana laws are at odds with federal laws, and the Drug
Enforcement Administration acted quickly to remind the defiant voters
that marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance, and that the
DEA's enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act will continue. Some
experts suggest that it will take the Supreme Court to resolve this
classic clash between the rights of the states and the authority of
the federal government.

These events provide the occasion to consider the place and uses of
"stupefaction" in our culture. I use the quaint term in homage to the
iconic Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, the author of really big books,
including the really, really big "War and Peace." After a dissolute
youth and a long, productive life Tolstoy adopted a radical version of
Christianity and a drastic asceticism that resulted in 1890 in a short
essay titled, "Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?"

Tolstoy laments the extravagant use of drugs in late 19-century
Russia, including vodka, wine, beer, hashish, opium, morphine and even
tobacco. In fact, he speculates that the work of philosopher Immanuel
Kant wouldn't have been written in such a "bad style" if Kant hadn't
smoked so many cigarettes.

Tolstoy's definition of a stupefacient was anything that dulled the
mind enough to make it lose sight of its conscience. It doesn't take
much: Tolstoy implies that the fictional murderer of "Crime and
Punishment," Raskolnikov, was pushed over the edge by as little as a
glass of beer and a cigarette. Tolstoy's answer was total abstinence.

Tolstoy was a genius, but his views sound unrealistic in a culture
like ours, with its enormous capacity for and attraction to
stupefaction. To us, stupefaction, in all its various forms and
degrees, is a synonym for pleasure, and while it can certainly
separate us from our consciences, we use it also, for good or ill, to
separate ourselves from the stresses and tedium of life.

Tolstoy would probably have been more honest than we are: he might
have thought a few cigarettes and a glass of beer preferable to the
stupefaction of the modern pot-bellied, middle-aged American man who
watches three football games on Saturday, two on Sunday, one on
Monday, and one on Thursday, and maybe Friday, as well.

In fact, Tolstoy would have recognized that we stupefy ourselves in
all sorts of ways - booze and illegal drugs, of course, but also with
plenty of legal drugs, food, TV, getting and spending, and enormous
amounts of electronic entertainment, diversion and distraction, more
than enough to keep our consciences at bay, as well as the realities
of the bad things that are happening in the world. Stupefaction is at
the heart of American life, and it might be healthier to admit that,
in moderation, it's fun.

But Tolstoy's idealism probably would have been most offended by the
irony and hypocrisy in our attitude toward marijuana, which accepts
and even admires its admitted use by celebrities (Bill Maher, Willie
Nelson, Cheech and Chong) and presidents (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama),
while running up the world's highest incarceration rate by the
disproportionate prosecution of minorities.

So, congratulations to the voters of Washington and Colorado for their
realism and honesty. May other states follow suit. May the voters not
befuddle their consciences and visions with excessive stupefaction.
And may the Obama administration defer to the will of the voters and
wind down the futile war on drugs.

Most of us will never live up to Tolstoy's rigid idealism, but we can
reach in the direction of his integrity.
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