"Pot makes you dumb," asserts Joe Scarborough, in POLITICO, eventually concluding, "I have found that all too often, pot just makes you dumb." Yet, in between the beginning and the end of this (surprisingly equivocal!) confirmation of his own tautology, Scarborough does not actually undertake much of a substantive defense of this position. Instead, he makes it very clear that he is really, really mad that Matt Taibbi wrote a blog post at Rolling Stone.
But meanwhile, how dare Taibbi have opinions and put them on the Internet, right? Per Scarborough:
“My God!” I muttered to myself while reading this historic blog, What possessed Taibbi to ball up and confront those famously prudish Rolling Stone readers with this radical, counterintuitive take on the evil weed? And what would this blogging daredevil attempt next? Perhaps an article blasting Dick Cheney for his role in the Iraq War? Or perhaps more daring exposes on big money in politics starring the Koch brothers!
Such courage is rarely seen these days, and one could not help but be reminded of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church house doors or Wilberforce standing alone in the well of Parliament striking out against the immoral British slave trade.
Well, the thing that inspired Taibbi to take up the matter were his observations that "over 700,000 people" were "arrested in weed-related incidents" in 2012, and that class, race and/or privilege, to varying degrees, seem to be the determining factors as to whether a marijuana smoker ends up being incarcerated or not. This is hardly some counterintuitive take, they are just plain facts. (Dave Weigel, in a more illustrative example that somehow managed to not make Scarborough fulminate, offers the same basic criticism as Taibbi.)
Eventually, Scarborough gets to the point where it looks like he might actually start directly contending with the substantive argument:
Taibbi let his readers know that unlike David Brooks and myself, he is one with America’s urban poor and the disadvantaged black kids who get caught up in the racist web of drug laws routinely enforced by the Man. This working-class hero righteously lamented the fact that too many poor people’s lives will be 'derailed forever by a pointless and intrinsically hypocritical marijuana arrest. But Scarborough wouldn’t know anything about that, apparently.'
This leads the reader to believe that Scarborough is presently about to drop mad knowledge about how lower-class people are disproportionately caught up in the web of "pointless and intrinsically hypocritical" marijuana arrests. But that's not what Scarborough does next:
God, I’m such an isolated, ignorant spoiled prick. If only I could have been raised in the kind of misery and squalor as Taibbi, perhaps I could connect to the mean streets of inner-city America like him. But how could I ever be as empathetic on such realities as a disadvantaged soul like Taibbi, who was forced to grow up in the affluent suburbs of Boston, attend prep school at Concord Academy, and then go on to Bard College?
Friends, this is apparently how the other half lives. The injustice of it is almost too much to bear.
This is maybe the cheapest argument you can make about someone who writes about issues concerning, and seeks to empathize with, the least among us. You went to a fancy college, so you are disqualified! It makes even less sense when Scarborough discusses the "countless public defenders who have approached me over the years in airports, on book tours, and in other public venues thanking me for talking about the injustice poor defendants of all colors face," and his long-held belief that "our justice system is far more likely to convict our most disadvantaged citizens regardless of race."
What, so ... they agree on this? Then what does all the shouting about Taibbi's background and schooling have to do with anything?
Well, I'm going to offer Scarborough a little leeway, here, because it seems that he is responding in this fashion because he may have felt provoked, after reading Taibbi's piece as an assertion that Scarborough was not qualified to discuss the matter himself. In his piece, Taibbi writes, "Scarborough also went the 'pot makes you stupid' route, although he essentially admitted to achieving that intellectual distinction himself without the benefit of even trying the drug."
Now, when I read this back when it was published, I thought the point Taibbi was making was simply that without having experienced the marijuana first-hand, it's a stretch to claim some sort of knowledge of how "dumb" you become. If I put myself in Scarborough's shoes, however, I can understand why that sentence feels like a brush-back pitch. And that's why Scarborough talks about all the bands he was in, because his experiences with his former pothead bandmates are what qualifies him to assert that "pot makes you dumb."
Also, my admission that I never smoked pot somehow disqualified me from speaking out on the issue of just how dumb pot can make you. That might make sense but for the fact I saw firsthand just how stupid pot made my older friends and scores of band members that I grew up with over a few decades. I played in bands from the time I was in seventh grade and was probably exposed to the use of illegal drugs than most middle-class Americans not writing for Rolling Stone.
I stayed away from pot specifically because of my experience with it.
I spent too many nights dealing with the stupidity and struggles of stoned bandmates in their early teens to want to follow that path. And while I dare not engage on the “gateway drug” argument, I can tell you that too many of my bandmates who smoked pot in their teens moved on to coke, acid, pills, and occasionally heroin later in life. I spent many nights dealing with their struggles, many hours helping with them through rehab, too many early mornings in emergency rooms, and in one tragic case, too many nights mourning the loss of a dear friend.
So, let's cheerfully concede that on the narrow point of Scarborough's qualifications to discuss the subject, he has a right to be aggrieved. I still don't see what the point of noting that Taibbi matriculated at Bard has to do with anything, though! I'd wager that there are probably some potheads in bands at Bard right now that make life pretty rough on their friends.
But one problem here is that Scarborough's experience is not universal. Plenty of people smoke marijuana without becoming dumb or having their lives ruined. And the suggestion that this is a universal experience is part of the problem. As Weigel notes, "anytime you use something that's supposed to ruin your life, but doesn't, won't you naturally mistrust the nannies who warned you against it?" And that's one reason a person might follow in the path of Scarborough's former friends, taking up harder drugs -- if the marijuana hysteria didn't deliver on its life-ruining promise, why on earth would you heed similar admonitions about cocaine or heroin?
And I am also obligated to return to the substance of the argument Taibbi made in the first place -- about how society's dictates supply one standard for one low-born class of pot user, and another standard for another class of pot user, deemed "better" or "more polite." Think about how Scarborough's pothead pals were treated by society: they were given the privilege of rehab; it was deemed appropriate that they go through the American health care system, rather than the criminal justice system. (There's no suggestion that any were incarcerated, but I'm happy to be corrected.) Society takes no umbrage at a friend standing at the bedside of Scarborough's bandmates, caring for them. Polite society deems it appropriate to respectfully mourn, without dishonor, that particular class of "junkie."
All of which is to say, if every single drug user were party to Scarborough's narrow-but-not-discountable experience, then Taibbi would never have the occasion to remark on the existing class-based double standard in the criminal justice system, and this fight never starts in the first place.
Or ... maybe it would! After all, the larger assertion Scarborough makes here has nothing to do with drug policy or the physiological effects of marijuana. Rather, the point Scarborough wants to make is simply that Taibbi isn't qualified to write about anything -- from the Iraq War to marijuana to dark political money. To do so when your whole point is to simply say, "Hey, I feel I'm qualified to talk about this, too," is plainly hypocritical. Dumb, even. But at least marijuana is off the hook here.
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