08 May 2006

Some Not So Random Musings: Book, War, Drugs & Barry Bonds

I don't have any particular bones to pick at the moment, but when you've got a blog you need to update it every so often, so I'll just fill this one with a bit of blather about a variety of things.

Rising Up and Rising Down by William T. Vollmann is one of, perhaps THE, most remarkable, fascinating, thought-provoking, difficult books I've ever read. It is about what is probably the most important single philosophical question there is: when, if ever, is violence justified? It is a remarkable achievement that mixes up history, politics, philosophy, literature and just about everything else you can think of. It is fantastically researched and beautifully written. It is self-indulgent, but so important, and so astounding in its scope and range, that it's worthy of the self-indulgence.

I'm about 50 pages into volume three. There are seven volumes. It will probably take me a year or two to finish reading it. I keep it by the side of my bed and pick it up for 20 to 50 pages at a time between my reading of other things - currently Walter Mosley's latest: Fortunate Son.

So far, volume three deals with justifications for war. The book attempts to come up with a "moral calculus" to determine when violence is justifiable, or to what extent it is. In the case of war, the first consideration, of several, in the calculation is: "Military violence should be employed only by and against participants." In other words, the more civilians you kill, the harder it is to justify your side in a war. Vollmann points out that: "At the close of the nineteenth century, ten to fifteen percent of all war casualties were inflicted on civilians. At the close of the twentieth, that figure had risen to seventy-five percent." I guess wars are getting harder to justify than ever. I wish our politicians understood that.

Regarding another type of war, the "war on drugs," Mexico has legalized drugs. Well, sort of, not really, only a little. But I wish they would. (I wish everyone would legalize drugs.) There are all kinds of good reasons to legalize drugs and hardly any reasonable ones to prohibit them.

From a legal point of view - the richest, most powerful, most violent, most corrupting criminal enterprises anywhere on Earth are financed by the illegal trade in drugs. Like it or not, enough people want to take heroin, cocaine, pot, X, you name it, that other people are always going to make a ton of money selling them. Making those drugs illegal means giving a monopoly on one of the world's largest and most profitable businesses to bad guys. Legalizing drugs would almost instantly put the current crop of drug lords and terrorists who finance their operations with illegal drug dealing, out of business. It would also, as Mexico's law is intended (although only in a very minor way), allow governments to redirect limited law enforcement resources to other, more serious, violent crimes. Violent crime itself would be reduced as prices came down and addicts no longer needed to commit crimes to get the money to satisfy their addiction. Courts would be a lot less clogged than they are now, allowing them to do a better job. And, it would instantly put an end to the massive amounts of drug-related political corruption that is a worldwide problem.

Economically there would also be a number of benefits. The illegal trade in drugs creates a huge, untaxed, underground economy. In some countries it has actually destabilized the legitimate economy. The new source of tax revenue, even at the reduced prices that would be the result of legalization, would be a tremendous help to the economies of poor nations such as Afghanistan, Laos, Bolivia, Colombia and Mexico. Taxing the sale of drugs would add plenty to the coffers of the government here in the U.S. And not having to futilely spend billions of dollars a year trying to stop the unstoppable trade in illegal drugs, and to incarcerate people arrested and convicted of possession and dealing, would save the U.S. enormous amounts of money at every governmental level.

But, people say, won't more people use drugs if they're legal? Maybe. But whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion of "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." If even half the money the government saved on enforcement and interdiction would be used for education, healthcare and rehabilitation, it would do a great deal more to solve the problem than anything else governments have tried so far. From a healthcare point of view; legal, regulated drugs would have fewer impurities and more accurate dosing. That would greatly cut down on overdoses and other ill-effects from drugs. Easy, cheap access to drug paraphernalia would cut down on the transmission of diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis B.

There's also a civil liberties issue at play here. Why should it be the government's business what you do to yourself in the privacy of your own home? Why should taking drugs be legally any different than, say, masturbating? Sure, take drugs and go out driving - the police ought to bring you down just as they would any drunk driver. Give or sell drugs to a minor - also a police matter. Shoot some heroin, snort some coke, smoke some pot, pop an X with some friends or by yourself at home or in the privacy of a club or bar or whatever place that offers that sort of thing - well, that ought to be your own business.

The "war on drugs" certainly isn't working. It has only succeeded in making criminals richer, more powerful and more ruthless; politics more corrupt; and drug users (and there are millions of them) less safe and more desperate. Mexico isn't going far enough.

Speaking of drugs, Barry Bonds is about to pass Babe Ruth on the lifetime homerun total list. While not yet proven, there is enough evidence that he has done so by taking steroids, that I, and most baseball lovers, accept it as fact. And, there seems to be plenty of evidence that taking steroids does actually give someone an unfair athletic advantage over someone who doesn't take them. (I'm not personally convinced that all that acne and impotence is worth it, but then no one's offered me tens of millions of dollars to hit a ball with a bat.)

While I am not thrilled to see the juiced Barry bypass the also juiced (although with performance decreasing alcohol) Babe, I'm not agonizing too much over it either. Babe Ruth probably had the the most individual impact on any sport ever. No matter how many of his records are broken, there is a strong argument to be made that he is, and probably always will be, the greatest.

Barry Bonds is a great player too. There is no denying that. Even if he hadn't hit 73 dubious homeruns in a season, even if he wasn't about to beat the Babe's total, he would still have been one of the best ever. Last night Bonds hit his fifth homerun of the season - and it's still early May. A monster 450 foot blast to right field. It seems unlikely that he's on steroids this year. He can't be that nuts - can he? He's been hitting his homeruns this year while playing on a terrible pair of knees, at the age of 41, suffering enormous amounts of abuse and pressure from fans and the press. Sure he's a schmuck, and possibly a cheat. But he's a damn good one.

And, I hate to say it since I'm a lifelong baseball lover, baseball is just a game. It's not curing malaria. It's not bringing peace to the Middle East. And it's a game in which a lot of fans - I am not among them - like to see big huge guys hit big huge homeruns with regularity. (I prefer teams that squeeze out runs with a lot of smart, small ball, and defend their meager leads with great pitching.) The ridiculous emphasis on power is at least partly responsible for the use of steroids. It's like any sort of drug - like heroin or coke - if there wasn't a market for this stuff, no one would be dealing it.

There's an equation in all of this. (This is where I tie together Vollmann's "moral calculus" and my legalize drugs notion):

Fans like seeing homeruns. 1
Barry Bonds hits alot of homeruns. + 2
Steroids make it easier for him to hit homeruns. + 3
Baseball is just a game, an entertainment, not really so important in the worldwide scheme of things. + 4

What does that add up to? You tell me.

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