Welcome to My Neighborhood

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The first time we saw Connie she was packing a snub-nosed .38. It was strapped snugly to her narrow hips, which were wrapped in skin-tight jeans — knee-high black leather boots and matching jacket rounding out her outfit.

She didn’t look around as she mounted her Harley — or put on a helmet. Her dirty blonde mane was blowing in the breeze. Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

We’d just moved in across the street from her house, a plain, white block bungalow without frippery or landscaping, other than a lawn, doubtless maintained because of the nearly free irrigation water available — and her job.

Connie was hot, albeit a bit rough around the edges — what some people might call “rough trade.”

Parts of the Phoenix metro area are serviced by the Salt River Project (SRP) irrigation district, organized in the 1800s to exploit the flows of that perennial river for the benefit of the surrounding desert farms. Today, much of the farmland has been turned to housing, and the irrigation water, delivered by canals, to lawns bordered by berms to retain the water.

The schedules for lawn flooding are on a rotating continuous timescale, with no lawn receiving its share at the same time each irrigation period. Floodgates may be opened or shut at any time of the day or night, according to SRP’s schedule. Most homeowners, people who work regular jobs and value their sleep, prefer to hire out this task. Enter Connie, who, for a small fee, was available to take care of your irrigation responsibilities.

Within days after our move into the neighborhood, Connie came over to introduce herself, scope us out, and proffer her services. It didn’t take long for her to feel comfortable and express her relief that we weren’t black or Mexican. Before she got too carried away, ranting and raving against those two groups, I told her I was Cuban-American and my wife was Mexican-American.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

She said that was of no consequence. She was prejudiced against these people as a group, not against particular individuals, and she added that one of her best friends was black.

Yeah, right, I thought. To allay our doubts, she explained.

She said she’d been married to a founder of the Aryan Nation, a white prison gang. I’ll let that sink in for a minute. We had needed at least as long to absorb it. (What sort of neighborhood had we moved into?) She continued, explaining that the gang had been formed for protection and that racial and ethnic affinities were the simplest methods for organization. The gangs — black, white, and Chicano — set behavioral rules and enforced them. Compliance led to respect, and respect to incipient friendships — the tortuous path that had led her to a friendship with a black.

Whether Connie was a racist might be debatable, but her opinion of men was definitely single-minded. Glancing at Tina, my wife, and then locking eyeballs with me she declared in no uncertain terms that all men were after the same thing. Sex — no exceptions.

We signed up for her irrigation services.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged. Her house was ringed by security cameras, footage from which was usually available to neighbors to figure out neighborhood mysteries. On at least one occasion, she helped resolve a vandalism incident. Her boyfriend, a muscle-bound, tattooed skinhead in a permanent tank-top, was surprisingly modest and self-effacing. He would often wait hours in front of her door for a response.

Connie, however, was a meth head and occasionally went on binges. Once past the high, she’d get nasty and combative but then, when coming down, would sink into maudlin depression. Her solace was Frannie, our octogenarian neighbor. Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman. She and Tina would often share a glass of wine in the afternoon under the carport and talk men. I think it was Frannie’s affinity for Tina that facilitated Connie’s trust in us.

Connie never answered her door. She figured only bad news would come calling. All visits had to be prearranged.

Connie once invited Tina to a shooting range. She’d always wanted to try some shooting, so she enthusiastically accepted. Connie provided Tina with what Tina called a “complicated” handgun, while Connie took a semi-automatic rifle (Tina, knowing little about guns, called it a machine gun).

The female bonding experience was going well until Tina became friendly with the cops who were sharpening their skills in the adjacent gallery. Connie turned combative and abruptly cancelled the date.

Her immediate neighbors were of two minds about her. The family due west was reminiscent of the Gallaghers, the family depicted in the TV series Shameless — dissolute, disorganized, undisciplined, and possessed of a passel of kids. Connie pirated her TV cable off their cable and, I believe (I didn’t pry), shared the monthly fee. The family due east was a couple of editors for the Arizona Republic, the state’s leading newspaper. They and Connie were feuding — something having to do with a tree growing over the cyclone fence separating their back yards.

When Connie found out I was a mason, she asked that I build a block wall between her property and these neighbors’. Except for those lots, most properties in the old subdivision were separated by four-inch-thick block walls supported every ten feet by eight-inch-thick block pillars. I agreed, but I needed to look at her back yard to estimate the extent of the job. She took us over for a look.

Her home was neat and clean. She’d remodeled the tract house to carve out a tiny control room where she monitored the surveillance cameras, and a gun closet where her arsenal was stored. But her bedroom took the cake. A four-poster, crinolined, oversized bed dominated the room, together with a four-by-eight mirror on the ceiling. We didn’t ask.

Frannie was a talented oil-on-canvas painter, fluent in Mandarin and Swahili, and a horny old woman.

Connie didn’t depend for her income on just being the irrigator. When a neighbor discovered her call-girl website, the place went ballistic. (Meanwhile, of course, all the men surreptitiously peeked at her website.) Two doors down from Connie and one door down from the Gallagher-like family lived a cop. He knew all about Connie. He refused to get involved. His philosophy was, if Connie didn’t disrupt the neighborhood, he left well enough alone.

One midday our house was broken into. Purely by happenstance, Tina showed up while the burglar was inside. Tina didn’t hesitate; although small in stature, she was fearless, a rock climber, and built like a female Schwarzenegger. She opened the door and bee-lined toward the hubbub. Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground and was about to begin pounding when the woman yelled that she was pregnant.

Having been brought up by drug-addled parents in dodgy environments and shuttled between foster homes, Tina had street smarts and could spot a line of BS instantly. “That jewelry that you stole was given to me by my husband just before he was killed in a shoot-out,” she responded, giving the thief pause.

Tina dragged her to the phone and called 911. The operator told her not to attempt to apprehend the thief. While Tina was on the phone, the thief slipped her grip, ran across the street, and jumped up on the four-inch block wall separating Connie’s house from her cable-sharing neighbors. Then, incredibly, she ran atop its length to the next street, where her car was parked. For all her athletic abilities, Tina couldn’t catch up, though she did provide a description of the car.

Catching the thief as she was attempting to climb out the window, Tina wrestled her to the ground.

The thief didn’t get away. Two female officers had already been dispatched and caught her attempting to flee. Tina ID’d the woman and, expecting a lecture about taking the law into her own hands, apologized to the officers for not following the dispatcher’s orders concerning the thief’s apprehension. Instead, the cops congratulated her and expressed a wish that more citizens would get more involved. They added that the woman had done time and was under suspicion and surveillance for similar burglaries in the area — one reason they’d been able to respond so quickly.

When we related these events to Connie, she said the woman was lucky she hadn’t broken into her house.

I never built a wall for Connie; she was too unpredictable. Instead of improving, Connie’s situation deteriorated. She took more drugs, got more combative, and alienated more neighbors. We sold our house at the top of the market bubble (the one that Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner didn’t spot), made a tidy profit, and moved away. Frannie told us that Connie ended up in prison for, I think, owning a firearm — a no-no for a convicted felon.

I love a diverse neighborhood: academic editors, polyglot artists, cops, Aryan Brotherhood meth heads, Cuban & Mexican-Americans, housing bubble speculators, handy call girls, classic car collectors, and other unique personalities we never got a chance to meet.

Our new neighborhood in a small town, anarchic in a completely different way, is calmer. While the characters aren't quite so extremely colorful, the property mix — along winding and hilly streets that change names seemingly without logic, and irregular land parcels — contains multimillion-dollar homes on acreage next to mobile homes and modest DIY homes on small lots, and even a nearly perennial creek called Miller Creek. We don’t even lock our doors.




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Libertinism is Not Libertarianism

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During the past decade or so, liberty-lovers have picked up the fight for legalization of prostitution and drugs. This has often involved a good deal of context dropping and evasion of other issues.

When Stephen Harper lost the Canadian elections in 2015, some well-known libertarians celebrated, for they now anticipated complete legalization. But the biggest competency of the new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is his looks and the dynasty he represents. He was voted into power primarily by those who lack self-responsibly and self-control and who want either a neverending hedonistic slugfest or mere free stuff, in what otherwise is one of the world’s so-called most educated and supposedly rational countries.

Trudeau lost no photo-ops when he greeted immigrants from Syria with open arms. Those for freedom of movement rejoiced, sometimes in nearly incredible terms. “The more [Syrian migrants] the better,” wrote one of the best known pro-liberty authors. Some antiwar libertarians, who want the US to end all entanglements in the Middle East, were also full of praise — and on this occasion, unconcerned about collateral civilian deaths — when Russia in a matter of days indiscriminately bombed parts of Syria to destroy rebel groups, including ISIS.

In a true, anti-statist, free society, prostitution and drug addiction would be tolerated, but very hesitatingly.

Some libertarians have taken it upon themselves to rebel against everything that Christianity, and in some cases other religions, stand for. Some encourage promiscuity and drunkenness — libertine behavior and trash-talk being the fast way for some women to rise in today’s “liberty” circles. If a woman works as a call-girl to pay for her education, this is a smart move, according to some in the liberty camp.

All of the above, particularly the pursuit of single-issue goals without thought of the larger ecology, is not a fight against the state and its tyranny but a fight against civilization and reason. Consequently it is, ironically, a fight against freedom and liberty, and must increase the size of the state.

In the past, such fights were the domain of the shallow, non-thinking, materialistic cult of the left, which plays on people’s unexamined emotions, particularly those related to the biological instincts of survival and procreation. But now cultural Marxism — and its mind-ossifying methodology of “argumentation” — has become so infused in society that many libertarians, especially anarchocapitalists, have come to see emotionally provocative, unexamined, single-issue goals as their own.

Prostitution and drugs

In a true, anti-statist, free society, prostitution and drug addiction would be tolerated, but very hesitatingly, because they present an inherent contradiction. Civilizations know that freedom comes from self-control and self-responsibility — not from giving in to impulses — and that certain conventions have evolved in societies around the world because they lead to an increase in human happiness and freedom. A free society would appreciate the fact that gluttonous sensuality is not a sign of freedom but an assertion of the anti-libertarian forces of unreason.

Liberty by its very construct must be founded on discipline, respect, self-control, and self-responsibility. Any society that lacks these virtues cannot be a free society, because its citizens will labor under a mental debility. Irrespective of the kind of written laws they have, their lack of necessary virtues will create a tyrannical state.

I dislike living in places where prostitution and drugs are rife. I have nothing personal against those who indulge in them. I have my own inner journey, and they have theirs. But I have nothing in common with them. I see virtually no channel of communication — nothing that connects us in values — open between us. Mostly we talk through each other, wasting everyone’s time.

Liberty by its very construct must be founded on discipline, respect, self-control, and self-responsibility. Any society that lacks these virtues cannot be a free society.

Those who watch too many James Bond movies, the adventures of Kim Kardashian, etc. — and even those who don’t — believe that promiscuity is a Western product and export. Quite to the contrary, it was European missionaries who found themselves horrified by the unrestrained promiscuity of most non-Western societies. This was one of the reasons they deemed the non-western societies uncivilized. Hence the widely used term “Victorian morality” — although people hardly imagine the historical implications of how this term came to exist, tending to use it only when they want to blame the English for sexual repression.

Contrary to popular belief, non-Western societies are very materialistic and impulsive, mostly because the concept of reason never got traction there. Women in vast parts of the world — in Africa, Latin America, tribal parts of India, and so on — are available merely for the asking. You see glimpses of this in the rest of Asia and Eastern Europe, too. Alas, in such sexually liberated places, women have a very low status and are treated like commodities. Also contrary to popular belief, such sexually liberated societies are no less prone to sexual crimes, for desire, when given a free rein, is a bottomless pit, offering the ever illusory elixir of happiness.

In the same vein, middle class children in India — particularly boys — are much indulged up to a certain age, precluding them from developing self-discipline in later years. Because they fail to develop inner faculties of self-control and self-responsibility, when they gain adulthood the only way to make them a productive part of the society and keep them out of crime is fear, abuse, and punishment. Such adults just cannot be an ingredient of a free society.

A libertine society is an oxymoron, for you can either have liberty or be a slave to your desires.

Even when the satisfaction of impulses does no direct harm, hedonism is eventually not satisfying. Any sophisticated society that has evolved culturally knows this instinctively. Any thinking person comes to the same conclusion. But today, hedonism (a supposed product of Western civilization) is being promoted as liberty in vast parts of the developing world. The consumption of bad, sugary food and every other kind of gluttony is increasing exponentially. Every year I return to a developing country, and it seems that waistlines there are increasing by an inch a year. Lifestyle diseases such as heart disorders and several kinds of cancer are placing forms of medicine that deal with their symptoms among the biggest growth sectors. Not too long in the future, these diseases may become the biggest crisis for humanity. Promiscuity — even where it was more restrained — is also rising exponentially.

The two religions of the desert — Christianity and Islam — train their citizens to control their desires, although the latter, having failed to underpin its beliefs with reason, still does it mostly through repression and indoctrination, leading to many other horrendous problems. But the point remains: in general, giving free reign to impulses and desires, and a culture of high time-preference, produces a lack of civilization and hence of liberty.

Drugs do destroy the mind and create chemical dependency. They make people lethargic and subliminally dependent on others. When unable to finance their habit, they take to theft, to public welfare, or, if they still retain some brains, to fraud. All these create enough cultural poison to bring in the police. A libertine society is an oxymoron, for you can either have liberty or be a slave to your desires.

Prostitution and drugs are not mere victimless crimes, as they are commonly — and rather simplistically — depicted by people who want to legalize them. For the sake of intellectual honesty, those who favor legalization (as I do) should recognize that when one increases the demand through legalization, the supply will also increase. And there is strong evidence that legalization of prostitution worsens the exploitation of women, through increased trafficking and inducements offered to gullible girls. These girls are then controlled through fear — a problem that those who grew up in happy families fail to recognize. The situation with drugs is not too dissimilar.

Immigration and religion

Then there are those who hinge their concept of a free society on unfettered immigration. They forget that while they constantly argue with people to convert them to free-thinking individuals, hoping to end up with legal structures in which liberties are respected as they were in the glorious past of the West, they also, in effect, are advocating the admission of millions of traumatized refugees, deeply indoctrinated in uncivilized and violent behavior. For such liberty-fighters with simplistic goals, culture is a blank slate on which anything can be written. But culture, alas, is virtually impossible to change, as those who want to impose institutional changes on the backward parts of the world have consistently discovered.

The compassion shown by Europeans and North Americans to recent migrants from Syria is heartwarming, and virtually unique on our planet. I have nothing against migrants. But an awareness of the fuller reality would provide some guidance about the extent to which they should be accommodated.

The evil of religion is another, single-goal target of certain libertarians. Here again, cultural context is lacking. Religions and traditions are the repository, in concentrated form, of thousands of years of our tacit knowledge and wisdom. Without the subliminal transmission of virtues and knowledge through customs and traditions, schooling — which is mostly devoid of the complexity of real life and can at best provide theoretical underpinnings — would take too long to educate people. The individual lifespan is too short. Formal education, by itself, is an extremely inefficient tool of real education. It almost completely fails to impart wisdom and sophisticated thinking. What the USSR and China created by partially destroying their cultures were minds that lacked frameworks to absorb understanding and wisdom. We need raw math and science — to provide theoretical underpinnings, a sort of objective glue — but they cannot by themselves impart wisdom. Tacit knowledge is much complex and fundamental.

Culture, alas, is virtually impossible to change, as those who want to impose institutional changes on the backward parts of the world have consistently discovered.

Contrary to their claims, many of the vociferous atheists I have known are actually devout believers in scientism — in the idea that anything that cannot be scientifically explained is not real. They believe they have perfect answers or they are very close to them. They fail to realize that despite 500 years of scientific progress our understanding of the world is miniscule in comparison to what is there to be explained. Then these believers in scientism think they are believers in reason, but reason is not final knowledge; it is a chisel, a tool to continue exploration for better and better knowledge, in full understanding that a perfect answer might, very possibly, never come. Indeed, reason has had to work continuously to chisel religions into shape. Most religions failed and became ossified. Christianity, as major religions stand today, is perhaps the only one that carries some capacity to evolve.

Most evolved people — and every such person I have known personally — had deep religious or spiritual experiences growing up, even if they became atheists later on. As an atheist, I do want religions to come out of their tribal instincts, but the reality is that the vast majority of humanity does not think, would not think, and would rather die than think. They need something to believe in. It had better be Jesus Christ or Buddha than Obama, the stupid-box, or Miss Universe. Those in the liberty movement who want religion to end — as I do — must ask themselves whether fighting against it would not result in worse problems. Destroying religions without offering something in return would produce a very bland, passionless, immoral world.

Many people, on both the Left and the Right, who have not examined what they want to fight for see an enemy and want to liquidate it. But if they don’t understand the ecology, the complex historical, social, and intellectual surroundings, they only create space for a more resistant and harmful enemy.

Several people I know voted for Trudeau in Canada because they were against what they regarded as Harper’s attempt to create a police state. Having voted that enemy out, they now realize that not only will Trudeau retain — except for some lip-service — most of the police-state elements of Harper’s regime, but he will greatly “assist” Canada in its degeneration to a socialistic, irrational, values-lacking society. Had my acquaintances understood the ecology, they might have more sensibly voted for Harper. I myself would have suggested abstention, to avoid legitimizing the state.

Fighting legitimizes the state

Would I want prostitution and drugs to be legalized? Yes. I certainly would not fight to keep prostitution and drug consumption illegal, because I do not want to interfere in other people’s lives. Moreover, the only way self-responsibility can be developed is by letting people experience the consequences of their actions. Those who are gullible will eventually be fooled by someone else anyway. But I see no reason to fight for legalization of prostitution and drugs, because I understand that my fight for liberty has many other issues to confront, and if those are not adequately dealt with, any legalization and resulting liberties will be transitory, fleeting, and illusory.

Destroying religions without offering something in return would produce a very bland, passionless, immoral world.

Similarly I would like complete freedom of travel and I won’t resist if this is enabled tomorrow, but given the many other issues involved, I abstain from a single-minded focus on fighting for free immigration. Most importantly, any fight for legalization validates the idea of the state, the most criminal of human institutions.

My fight is for self-responsibility and self-control, which are cornerstones of civilization and liberty. My fight belongs in the space of reason. In the real world, issues are much entangled with one another. In societies that lack inherent moral impulses (which is the case with virtually every society outside the West), my fight is to shake people’s souls to infuse in them the concept of reason. Even in the West, my fight is not just to end the welfare-warfare system but to stop the hemorrhaging of the concept of reason. Unless this is done, any single-goal fight will have illusory results. Most likely, indeed, it will make the situation worse.




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Drugs Are the Least of the Problem

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The word “sicario” means “hit man” in Spanish, or more literally “dagger man.” Its use dates back to the Jewish Zealots who carried small daggers in their cloaks and assassinated Roman guards in the streets. A note at the beginning of the film Sicario informs us that these Zealots were “killers of those who invaded their homeland.” That would make them heroes with blood on their hands. The film presents two homelands, the United States and Mexico, that are invaded in different ways, and two sets of sicarios caught up in defending two ways of life that have been forever changed by the drug trade.

Drugs are the least of the problem in this film, which focuses instead on the collateral damage of the drug war. As the film opens, an FBI SWAT team led by agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invading a home in Chandler, Arizona, a quiet middle-class suburb of Phoenix 200 miles north of the border with Mexico. I have friends who live comfortably there. Kate’s mission is not a drug bust but a hostage rescue, and her team drives straight through the wall of the house with their Humvee in their surprise attack. They are too late for anything but cleanup duty, however, and the grisly scene they find causes many of them to vomit. This is the next step in the drug war — not just the physical effects of drug addiction, or the big-money corruption that goes with the lucrative trade, but the personal terror, torture, and murder that are used to maintain strict control. And it’s coming to middle America, the movie warns.

Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored.

“Pretty soon all of your crime scenes will be booby-trapped with explosives, and then how will you protect your team?” Kate’s superior (Victor Garber) warns her as he tries to recruit her for a riskier mission that involves tracing the violence to its source, a kingpin named Fausto (Julio Cedillo), by interrogating a lower-level henchman, Guilllermo (Edgar Arreola), in custody in Juarez, Mexico. Kate agrees to join the mission to extricate Guillermo from Juarez, although she doesn’t understand her role in the plot (and frankly, neither do we).

As the scene changes to Juarez, we see the ravages of the drug war in full force. Naked mutilated bodies hang from overpasses. Families attending their children’s soccer matches barely flinch at the barrage of gunshots in the distance. A shootout in the middle of a crowded road is largely ignored by occupants in the surrounding cars. A father eats breakfast with his son and then goes off to his job as a policeman and drug mule. This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters to shop for cactus lace and sombreros. And I hope it is not a precursor of the Chandler my friends may soon know if the war on drugs continues its relentless invasion.

Leading the hunt for Fausto is a mysterious Colombian named Alejandro (Benecio del Toro). Kate eyes him warily while they travel to Juarez and then to Nogales, and tension builds in the silence. Then, as they enter Juarez, the music begins — a downward chromatic slide in a minor key that starts softly and builds to a pulsing, crashing arpeggio of despair as they race through the city, jolting full throttle over speed bumps, surrounded by armed escorts with machine guns at the ready. The tension ebbs and flows throughout the rest of the film, accompanied by the riveting soundtrack, but it never disappears.

This is not the Juarez I knew 45 years ago, when my mother had no qualms about driving across the border with her two teenaged daughters.

This is not the kind of film you watch for entertainment value. It is appalling in its matter-of-fact portrayal of brutality. But it is an important story, led by the tour de force acting skills of Del Toro and Blunt. We’ve come to expect Del Toro’s steely-eyed reserve, his undertone of ruthlessness, and his skill at conveying character without saying a word. Blunt usually portrays her characters with kickass strength, even when they aren’t actually kicking ass. One would expect an FBI agent who has advanced to the role of team leader would have that same steely-eyed strength. But Blunt plays this character with an unexpected vulnerability and wariness. Her waif-thin slenderness contributes to the fragility of her character’s emotional state. She is a virtually powerless sicario, trying to protect her homeland from the invaders.


Editor's Note: Review of "Sicario," directed by Denis Villeneuve. Lionsgate, 2015, 121 minutes.



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Collateral Damage

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In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.

In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.

This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.

And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.

As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.

Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.

All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.

 

Further Reading

Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.

AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.

Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.

Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.

Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.

Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.

Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).

Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.

Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.

Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.

Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.

Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.

DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.

Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.

Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.

El Salvador.” Insight Crime.

Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.

___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.

___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.

Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.

Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.

Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.

Honduras.” Insight Crime.

How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.

Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation. 2014.

 ____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.

Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.

Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.

Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.

Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.

Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.

Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.

Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”

2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.

World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.




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Acapulco Gold Rush

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Last weekend my wife was seized by an unwholesome enthusiasm for tiny houses. She’d read they were featured at something called a Better Living Show and wanted to go.

That’s what they call them, tiny houses; and in the truth-in-naming department you can’t do much better than that. Tiny houses are two-hundred-square-foot jobs, conveniently sized to fit into a single parking space. Except, if you lived in a parking space you’d have more room because you wouldn’t have to share your living quarters with a furnace and a water heater.

Tiny houses are the city of Portland’s newest, most environmentally correct way of encouraging neighborliness and doing something about urban sprawl at the same time. “Infill” is the word the planners use to justify them: 11, maybe 20 of the things bumper to bumper on a standard neighborhood lot. A business opportunity is what my wife called them. We could crowd a few dozen in the backyard, charge rent, and kayak the income stream into a comfortable old age.

The stuff isn’t even legal until July, yet here we were at a staid Better Living Show browsing booths filled with bongs and vaporizers and rolling papers and roach clips.

Marriages being what they are, we headed over to the Better-Living-in-the-Shanty-Town-of-the-Future Show, got out of the car, made our way on foot to where the parking lot receded over the curve of the earth, spotted a crowd, followed it into a warehouse-like building and found . . . marijuana paraphernalia. In fact, the first aisle was nothing but marijuana paraphernalia, display after display of the kind of things that would get you busted at any airport in America. Better living indeed.

Interesting, we thought, how quickly the free market kicked into gear once Oregon passed its marijuana initiative last fall. The stuff isn’t even legal until July, yet here we were at a staid Better Living Show browsing booths filled with bongs and vaporizers and rolling papers and roach clips. And it wasn’t just paraphernalia. One particularly popular young lady was pushing samples of what she billed as “medicine-free” edibles. Not that you can’t get edibles with medicine right now, just not at a recreational-use booth. Medical marijuana has been legal for decades but, until July, you will still need a prescription to indulge in recreational munchies.

In the next aisle orchids were being ultra-violated in the sort of high-tech grow-box you see in movies about space stations. Orchids, we thought. Now that we’ve found the more traditional part of the Better Living Show, can tiny houses be far away?

Turned out they could. It also turned out that the grow-box wasn’t meant for orchids. The orchids were nothing more than body doubles for the medicinal herbs that were meant to go in the grow-box but, like the medicine for the munchies, were biding their time until July. Next to the grow-box were shelves of seedless seed packets bearing the names of every imaginable variety of the scientifically engineered seeds you could grow in the grow box, just as soon as July rolls around and the seed packets contain seeds.

It began to dawn on us that, maybe, the better living show we’d arrived at wasn’t the same Better Living Show advertised in the paper. Sometimes we can be pretty insightful.

“This is the Oregon Cannabis Convention & Trade Show,” a nice young man informed us. “Better Living Show is the next building over. Building after that is the Gold & Treasure Show.”

Gold & Treasure? I thought. Gold and treasure is even better than marijuana paraphernalia. The Internet will send marijuana paraphernalia right to my home, but gold and treasure? Not even the most desperately dispossessed Nigerian widow ever came through with any of that. We headed over to the Gold & Treasure Show.

You had to go through a metal detector and check your guns before they’d let you in. I saw that as a favorable sign, a promise that we were about to be ushered into Aladdin’s cave. Or, and this is a particular fantasy of mine, Uncle Scrooge’s money bin.

Tiny houses are a lot more honest about what they call themselves than that Gold & Treasure Show. At the Gold & Treasure Show there was no treasure and not much more gold than there was marijuana at the marijuana show . . . and gold has been legal since the early ’70s. A couple of guys at out-of-the-way tables were pushing run-of-the-mill coins at about 30% more than you could get them for at any gold shop in town, which may say something about who they thought would be attending the show.

In the next aisle orchids were being ultra-violated in the sort of high-tech grow-box you see in movies about space stations.

What there was plenty of was late middle-aged men dressed up like prospectors who’d been thawed out of a glacier left over from Klondike days. They sported full beards and work boots, flannel shirts, and heavy-looking pants held up with suspenders. Their only sartorial concession to the 21st century was baseball caps advertising the names of equipment companies, which weren’t that much of a concession because the equipment they were advertising was as old-fashioned as the outfits. Row after row of sluice boxes. Pans. Picks. All the latest in 19th-century gold-mining technology. Pretty much anything you’d want if you were about to head on up to Dawson City in 1898.

Except, that is, for the gold magnets. Gold magnets weren’t part of any 19th-century prospector’s kit I know about. The fact is, I’m not persuaded that gold magnets should be part of any 21st-century kit, either. The idea of using magnetism to suck gold out of the ground doesn’t fit with anything I remember from high-school science; and, when I tried one on my wife’s wedding ring, it didn’t notice anything special. Which could go a long way toward explaining why these guys were at a trade show selling equipment rather than making their fortunes in the wilds of Alaska. But then, gold-rush fortunes are always made by the guys who sell the equipment.

Competitionwise, the Better Living Show picked a bad weekend to come to Portland. Marijuana fills the better-living bill for lots of people, and pretty much everybody thinks gold and treasure would go far toward making their living better, but almost nobody except city planners and the occasional overly enthusiastic wife imagines tiny houses could possibly make life better for anybody except slumlords, which left the Better Living Show a distant third attendancewise.

The people who put on that show seemed to share the general opinion and gave tiny houses the same pride of place as the Gold & Treasure Show gave gold coins: next to a wall on the far side of the room. There were two of them, both looking like the kind of place Red Riding Hood’s grandmother immigrated to America to escape from, once she’d been regurgitated by the wolf.

While the Gold & Treasure people were mostly pushing 19th-century mining gear, the marijuana people were selling stuff from a century that hasn’t even happened yet.

Also, they were culturally better suited to Red’s grandmother than to modern Americans. Medieval European peasants were minimalists in the way of possessions, and the houses were decorated in that style. Nothing was in them, including plumbing, so you had to imagine where the toilet and sink and shower would go, along with the furnace and water heater, which took some imagining because a tiny house doesn’t have space for much more than a single room with a fold-down bed, and the beds weren’t there, either. I would have gone into one for a better look, but I couldn’t get in. Somebody was already inside and I wouldn’t fit.

The vendors at the Better Living Show appeared to have a lot of spare time on their hands. The one I got to talking to seemed much more interested in the marijuana show next door than trying to sell me whatever he was supposed to be selling. He was elderly, almost as old as I am from the grizzled look of him. He’d grown up in Detroit and, like a lot of inner-city Americans, didn’t have any tolerance for drugs. But marijuana? He spent time volunteering with veterans and, well, he’d seen guys even older than himself cured, by drinking marijuana tea, of the neuropathy that goes along with type 2 diabetes.

Tea, he said. “If it’s tea it’s not a drug. “That show still there tomorrow?”

“Think so,” I said.

“I need to go find out about tea.”

The marijuana show wasn’t really about tea, although there were people there who probably could have told him. Maybe the munchie lady would have slipped him a recipe or two. What the marijuana show was about was selling you equipment, then selling you the knowledge you needed to use the equipment.

The marijuana show was about gleaming pipes and tubes and gauges and vats and dials that looked like they’d been left over from Breaking Bad. It was about grow lights and consultants to tell you how to save electricity once you’d bought the grow lights. It was about other consultants who knew how to maintain the optimum humidity, or the proper day-night cycles. It was about scary-looking machinery to extract hash oil from all the buds you’d be growing with all the grow boxes and humidity and day-night cycles. It was about consultants on indoor growing to tell you about nutrients and hydroponics, and about entirely different lines of equipment and consultants for people who wanted to make their fortunes growing marijuana outdoors. Underneath it all, it was about selling people who didn’t know the first thing about marijuana cultivation or marijuana processing the dream of turning into international marijuana kingpins.

If I’d had a lot of money, even if I’d had a lot more money than that, I still would have had to go into debt, yea, even unto the seventh generation, to get started in that business. But none of that debt would have made the least bit of difference in light of all the money that would be rolling in, once I got the business cranked up. It was pretty clear these people had had a lot of practice selling this line.

They were, when I thought about it, the same sort of people as the ones at the Gold & Treasure Show, except that, while the Gold & Treasure people were mostly pushing 19th-century mining gear, the marijuana people were selling stuff from a century that hasn’t even happened yet.

Something that nobody was selling was the statistics on what became of marijuana prices in Washington when weed went legal. Despite sellers up there having their state, Idaho, and the whole captive Portland market to themselves, the bottom fell out of their businesses. Too many who thought they were getting on the elevator at the ground floor wound up stepping into an empty shaft, only to get smashed flat when the elevator turned out to be heading down at them.

Try as I might, and I tried for half an hour, I couldn’t get a clear reason why weed farmers would want to unionize their workers.

It wasn’t as if there was nobody at the marijuana show who knew that. Or knew how to run a business in general. Several organizations had booths selling business-support services. One fellow claiming to provide this kind of expertise was a union leader trying to organize the workers on marijuana farms.

“But nobody here is planning to be a farm worker,” I told him.

“Plenty are planning to be growers, though,” he said. “I’m organizing growers, too.”

“You think growers want to join a union?”

“Their workers would. I’m organizing the growers so they can organize their workers.”

Try as I might, and I tried for half an hour, I couldn’t get a clear reason why farmers would want to unionize their workers. The best unclear reason involved keeping all the farms on the same playing field, which would keep prices for the product at a uniformly high level so that everybody, farmers and workers alike, would get rich. When I asked if his union planned to organize the illegal growers who are, when I thought about it, all the growers that exist right now, his answers became more unclear than usual. When I asked how anybody was going to get rich when marijuana doesn’t sell for any more than it’s selling for in Washington, he became even less clear.

A few booths over, a lady was touting a security service. “Marijuana businesses attract a lot of shady characters,” she said. “Owner needs to know who they are.”

Maybe, I thought, when marijuana is against the law. When it’s legal and cheap, shady characters are a lot more likely to hang around jewelry stores and places selling gold and treasure.

“You see a car in your parking lot with some shady characters inside,” she went on, “the last thing you want is to have to approach that car to find out who they are.”

Probably true I thought. Of any business.

“If you hire us, all you have to do is call with the tag number and we’ll tell you everywhere that car has been in the last few months.”

“You know that?”

“Sure. We get it from the street cameras. We can tell you within seconds everywhere that car has been.”

I knew about street cameras. Street cameras are one of things I talk about that make people think I’m some kind of anti-government crazy person, along with the thing I used to say about how the NSA records everybody’s phone calls and emails. I never expected the government would bother about something like a warrant when it wanted to check up on where my car had been, but I did think that calling up a specific license number would take a bit of trouble, like those operators tracing phone calls in old movies. And that, at the very least, the government would be embarrassed enough by the whole thing not to go making it any more public than it needed to. It never crossed my mind that you or I or a private security firm could tie directly into the street cameras and know where somebody else’s car had been. And do it within seconds.

I also couldn’t see how knowing where a car had been would tell you much about the people in the car. Unless the car turned out to be parked every night in a federal motor pool, which would tell you all you needed to know if you were running a marijuana outlet.

Which brings up the gentleman in the insurance booth. He was selling policies tailored for marijuana businesses. “Cover slip-and-fall. Product liability. Renter’s insurance to ease landlords’ concerns about leasing buildings to use as grow facilities. Theft. Bad debts. Acts of Government.”

Say what?

“Acts of Government. It’s not just what the thieves are planning that a businessman has to worry about, you know. It’s what the government has in mind, too.”

Now that’s something I could understand, at least until I thought about it. Insurance against acts of government was the one thing out of the whole trade-show lollapalooza, the one thing among all the fantasies of tiny houses and 19th-century gold-mining, of drive-you-to-the-poorhouse high-tech grow equipment and knowing where somebody else’s car has been, that made sense to me. Insurance against acts of government — that has . . .

That has . . . I don’t know. The things the government gets up to always turn out to be so far ahead of anything any sane person can imagine, I’m not sure what that guy was really selling. Could be he was no different from the other hucksters that morning. At the very least, he knew who his marks were.

Lots of people who use marijuana, and lots of people who would have wandered over from the Gold & Treasure Show, have their suspicions about acts of government. Could be he saw us coming.

Could be I’m the sort of guy who’d be suckered into the empty promise of a policy insuring me against acts of government in the same way those latter-day prospectors imagined they’d make their fortunes in Alaska, or those urban wannabe farmers and processors fancied there’s endless money to be had in marijuana.

Could well be something like that.

p/p




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Election 2014: The Ballot Measures

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Libertarians should take encouragement from some of the ballot measures in the Nov. 4 election:

Medical freedom

Arizona voters passed Proposition 303, which seeks to allow patients with terminal illnesses to buy drugs that have passed Phase 1 (basic safety) trials but are not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

To libertarians, this is an old and familiar cause and one in which it is easy to find allies if people are paying attention, which most times they are not. The movie Dallas Buyers Club provided an opening, and this year legislatures in Colorado, Missouri and Louisiana passed what are now called “Dallas Buyers Club” laws. In Arizona, the cause was promoted by the Goldwater Institute.

Opponents have said that such laws will give many terminal patients false hope, which is surely true. But it is better to give 90% false hope if 10% (or some other small share) obtain real benefit, if the alternative is an egalitarian world of no hope for all. And it ought to be the patient’s decision anyway.

What the FDA will do about the “Dallas Buyers Club” laws is a question; as with marijuana, the matter is covered by a federal law, if one of questionable constitutionality. At the very least the Arizona vote, a whopping 78% yes, should give other states, and eventually Congress, a political shove in favor of freedom.

Marijuana

Legalization measures were first passed in 2012 by the voters of Colorado and Washington (the two states that had the Libertarian Party on the ballot in 1972). They have been followed this year by the voters of Alaska, which passed Measure 2 with 52%; Oregon, which passed Measure 91 with 55%; and the District of Columbia, which passed a decriminalization measure, Initiative 71, with 65% yes.

Alaska and Oregon were early supporters of marijuana for medical patients, as were Colorado and Washington. When the opponents say medical marijuana is a stalking horse for full legalization, they are right. It is — which means that more states will join Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and Colorado.

On Nov. 4 Florida rejected medical marijuana, but only because it required a 60% yes vote. Florida Amendment 2 had nearly 58%.

Taxes

In Massachusetts, which several decades ago was labeled “taxachusetts,” voters approved Question 1, which repeals the automatic increases of the gas tax pegged to the Consumer Price Index.

In Tennessee, Amendment 3, forbidding the legislature from taxing most personal income, passed with a 66% yes vote. Tennessee is one of the nine states with no general income tax, though it does have a 6% tax on interest and dividends, which will continue.

In Nevada, 79% of voters rejected Question 3, to create a 2% tax on adjusted business revenue above $1 million. Proponents called it “The Education Initiative” because the money was to be spent on public schools; opponents called it “The Margin Tax Initiative.” The measure was put on the ballot with the help of the Nevada branch of the AFL-CIO, which then changed its mind and opposed it. Good for them; most people and organizations in politics never admit of making a mistake.

Debt

In Oregon, Measure 86 would have created a fund for scholarship grants through the sale of state bonds. The measure was put on the ballot by Oregon’s Democratic legislature and supported by the education lobby. It was opposed by the founder of the libertarian Cascade Policy Institute and by the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, because of the likely increase in public debt. It also would have allowed the legislature to dip into the fund for general spending if the governor declared an emergency. In this “blue” state, the measure failed: 59% no.

Regulation

In Massachusetts, which has had mandatory bottle deposits on carbonated beverages since 1982, voters rejected Question 2, an initiative to extend the bottle law to sports drinks, juices, tea and bottled water (but not juice boxes). The vote was a landslide: 73% no.

Abortion

Libertarians are divided on abortion, depending on whether they consider a fetus to be a person. Voters in Colorado rejected Amendment 67, which would have defined an embryo or fetus as a “person” or “child” under state criminal law. The vote was 64% no.

In North Dakota, a “right to life” amendment the state legislature put on the ballot as Measure 1 was rejected, also 64% no.

In Tennessee, voters approved Amendment 1, which asserts state control over abortion but would leave to the legislature what sort of control it would be. Opponents called it the “Tennessee Taliban Amendment.” It got 53% of the vote.

All of these measures are probably symbolic only, because the question has been coopted by the U.S. Supreme Court under Roe v. Wade and later decisions. Still, symbolism can matter.

Alcohol

In Arkansas, where about half the counties are dry, Issue 4 would have opened the entire state to alcohol sales. It failed, with 57% voting no. That’s a loss for freedom if a gain for federalism.

Guns

Washington voters passed Initiative 594 to require background checks for sales of guns by non-dealers. The measure was bankrolled by Michael Bloomberg, Bill and Melinda Gates, and a liberal Seattle venture capitalist and given an emotional push by shootings at a nearby high school. Washington remains a concealed-carry state.

Minimum wage

Politically, this is a lost issue for libertarians. On Nov. 4, Arkansas voted to raise its minimum from $7.25 (the federal minimum) to $8.50 by 2017; Alaska, to raise its minimum from $7.75 to $9.75 by 2016, and index it to inflation; Nebraska, to raise it from $7.25 to $9 by 2016, and South Dakota, to raise it from $7.25 to $8.50 by 2015, then index it. These measures passed by 65% in Arkansas, 69% in Alaska, 59% in Nebraska and 54% in South Dakota.

In Massachusetts, voters approved Question 4, mandating paid sick days in private business. The yes vote was 59%.

Governance

In Oregon, voters rejected the sort of “top two” election system operating in neighboring Washington. In that system, anyone can file in the primary and declare their party allegiance, and the top two vote-getters, irrespective of party, advance to the November election, which becomes a run-off. California has a similar system. Little parties like the Libertarian Party hate it, because it keeps them off the November ballot except in some one-party districts.

Oregon voters were offered a top-two system in 2008 and voted 66% against it. This time, for Measure 90, they voted 68% against it.




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Drowned in the Jury Pool

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The other day I reported for jury duty. In California, you report for one day, and if you aren’t lucky enough to get on a jury, you’re out for at least the next year. I’ve gone through this four or five times now, and only once did I land on a jury. That jury was hung, partly because the august legal minds empaneled a woman who claimed that her profession was teaching the principles of jury selection to students in a junior college. She proved to be, as almost anyone would have anticipated, an enormous pain in the ass.

This year, I waited in the “jury lounge” for several hours, not even pretending to watch a propaganda film about how wonderful it is to serve on a jury. I puzzled over the wording of my next book, chatted with a couple of people who, like me, wished devoutly not to get on a jury, celebrated the fact that it was 11:45 and no calls for jurors had been made — and then it happened. My name was announced as one of the 40 people who had to assemble in Superior Court, Section Such and Such, to be examined by the judge and attorneys to determine whether we were fit to decide whether someone should go to jail for burglary and such and such and so and so, and possession of methamphetamine.

The way they do this is to get all 40 victims into the courtroom, and then particularly examine the first 21, to see whether some of them should be replaced by some of the other 19. Why 21, I don’t know. I was randomly assigned a position as Prospective Juror No. 9.

Once we jurors had been properly infantilized, we were taken into the courtroom, seated in our places, and asked a series of questions by the judge.

My cohort’s progress into the jury room was impeded by a court official who spent 25 minutes checking off the list of 40 randomly generated names. He made jokes about his age, and his eyeglasses, and his difficulty reading the list, and our names, and his mispronunciation of our names, as if it mattered how he pronounced anything. He may have been wasting time because the judge wasn’t ready to invite us in. So if the dentist is late, does he have one of his assistants come out to the waiting room and start drilling your teeth?

Once we jurors had been properly infantilized, we were taken into the courtroom, seated in our places, and asked a series of questions by the judge. She turned out to be very sensible. She explained what she was doing with great succinctness, asked her questions clearly, and found ways to limit our answers to what was relevant. She was a welcome relief from my last judge, who when confronted by an elderly man who announced with pride that he had been a member of more than 30 juries and had always enjoyed himself, invited the aged idler to entertain us with stories from his service to American justice. The current judge wasn’t like that. After her round of examination, she gave the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney just 15 minutes each to ask their own questions. I quickly grew to like her.

But what I’ll always remember is the responses of my fellow prospective jurors.

The man who answered the judge’s question, “Would you believe that the defendant is guilty just because he’s sitting at the defendant’s table?” by saying, “Yes. I mean, why else would he be the defendant?” Body language suggested that he wasn’t just trying to get off the jury. He was being honest.

The woman who, thoughtfully and repeatedly, said that she could not serve on a jury because her religious beliefs did not allow her to judge her fellow men. When I spoke with her at the end of the day, she proved to be a Christadelphian, a member of a sect that I had studied but of which I had never met a single member. This was a big deal for me. She was a nice person and probably the most intelligent person I met all day.

She tried to argue me into it. Surely I could vote on a question of fact?

The woman who, when asked whether she or any member of her family had been a victim of crime, revealed that her mother’s car had once been stolen, “and she never got it back!” She started crying hysterically and was told to go home.

The woman who, almost as hysterically, answered several questions by saying that she wouldn’t have a bias about someone accused of drug possession, but if she thought he committed a crime because he was “addicted,” she could never forgive him, “never! never!

The woman who said she had friends who were going to law school, and they told her that “there were things going on behind the scenes,” evidently “things” in the legal system, and therefore . . . something. The judge tried to get her to say what the “things” were, tried to joke with her about how law students sometimes make remarks that don’t mean very much, tried to get her to put some definition to anything she said. But her efforts were futile. She gave up.

The man who answered every question about things that might affect his judgment with some story about his “partner,” his “current partner,” or his “partner in the 1980s,” and who was concerned that his “partner in the 1980s” had a relative who was a “correctional officer.” “Do you know that person?” the judge asked. “No . . . I never met him.”

The woman who answered the question about whether police officers ever lie with an adamant declaration that no, they never do. Never? the judge asked. No, never. The judge’s eyes widened; she was obviously repressing the desire to say something like “What kind of an idiot are you?” Members of the jury pool had less luck repressing their laughter. The judge kept questioning the woman, trying to get her to say whether there was any possibility that any police officer might ever say anything except the truth. Finally the woman conceded that if you got together enough thousands and millions of police officers, one of them might possibly, on some occasion, probably in private, deviate very slightly and unintentionally from the exact truth.

The several people who plainly did not speak English with any facility but who were emphatic in correcting the judge about her pronunciation of their names.

The several people who, refreshingly, laughed off all mispronunciations.

The man who, very, very seriously, reviewed the long and irrelevant history of his employment.

The woman who, very enthusiastically, responded to every question with an account of the social work that she and her husband perform.

The many people who recounted friends’ and relatives’ run-ins with the law, almost always incidents about driving while under the influence (not injuring anyone, mind you) or using recreational drugs, then shrugged and said, “No, the punishment was fair; he brought it on himself.”

If you’ve been adding up this list, you can see that there were a lot of people in that first cut of 21 who may not have belonged on a jury.

What about me? I didn’t belong either. At the appropriate moment, I advised the judge that I thought it was immoral to convict anyone on a drug charge. She read a statement about juries not deciding the law for themselves, and I said that yes, I understood, but in the case of victimless crimes I was in favor of what the statement was trying to exclude, which was jury nullification. She smiled and said, “Yes, that’s what we’re talking about.”

The judge’s eyes widened; she was obviously repressing the desire to say something like “What kind of an idiot are you?”

The defense attorney of course wanted me to be empaneled, so she tried to argue me into it. Surely I could vote on a question of fact? Surely I could determine whether someone possessed methamphetamine? Surely that wouldn’t be convicting anyone? Surely only a judge can sentence anyone? I told her I could see where that train was going, and I wouldn’t get on it. The prosecuting attorney smiled and joked with me, suggesting that I was arrogant enough to think I knew better than everyone else. Maybe he was right, but I was wondering why he bothered. Maybe he was trying to discourage anyone else from acting like me in the jury room. By this point, ironically, I was getting interested in the process and mildly regretting that I wouldn’t get to serve.

After a couple hours of jury examination, punctuated by a short break that turned into a longer break, the judge called the attorneys into her chambers. A few minutes later they came back, and she announced that five people were excused: me, the young Mexican American who sat next to me, the Christadelphian lady, and two others whom I couldn’t connect with the answers they’d given. The Mexican American was a working class kid who had started responding to questions about drug convictions with answers like, “I don’t know. . . I could follow the law. But with recreational drugs . . . I dunno . . . It doesn’t seem right. . . . Well, yeah, I guess so.” After listening to the back and forth about me, he reached a more definite position. He said he would not vote to convict anyone for drug possession. I didn’t talk to him during the breaks, or at any other time; but maybe I was responsible for his values clarification.

And so it ended. I walked out of the courthouse, chatting with the Christadelphian lady, then proceeded to the eight-dollar-a-day parking lot, having experienced the American jury system in what may be nearly its finest hour.




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Hoffman Dies, War on Drugs Revives

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On February 2, Philip Seymour Hoffman, a movie actor, died with a needle in his arm in his home in New York City. To me, his death from a heroin overdose was regrettable, and regrettable in the same way in which deaths from the effects of overeating and overdrinking are regrettable. I felt no extra stirring of dramatic emotion.

In this, obviously, I am very unlike my fellow Americans. To the celebrities who flocked to his funeral, and the larger mobs who flocked to the websites and “news” sources mourning his death, his way of leaving this world appears to have ennobled him, given him, somehow, the rank of tragic hero. People who had never heard of him, or (like me) had heard of him and even liked his performances on screen but never considered his name as something to be remembered, suddenly found that their worlds were poorer because of Hoffman’s drug-related death. Policemen, working with a dedication rarely seen in cases of actual mayhem and murder, identified and arrested four people whom they suspected of possible responsibility for his death.

Responsibility? This is like arresting the employees of a fast-food restaurant because an obese patron died from the effects of his last Big Mac. Did anyone say “double standard”? Did anyone say “human sacrifice”? No. You heard it here first.

Granted, the Demonic Four may not be deacons of the church and pillars of the community. They may be disgusting members of the criminal class. (Or they may be wholly innocent.) But who created that criminal class? Who put the profit in illicit drugs? Who put “illicit” in drugs, and keeps it there?

Legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime.

The answer is: the same kind of people who are beating their breasts over Hoffman’s death. It is these people — and they appear to be the majority of Americans, made snazzier by the presence among them of loquacious celebrities and soi-disant humanitarians — who create the illicit profit, and the correspondingly illicit drama, of heroin, cocaine, and all the other “hard” illegal drugs. They profess themselves to be so concerned about the fate of, say, wealthy actors that in retribution they are willing to spread the plague of crime, gangs, violence, and the corruption of the profit-seeking young across the continent, despoiling whole cities in a mad attempt to realize their dream of a Drug-Free America.

For a century, America has been waging war against drugs. According to CNN, heroin is now selling at $10 a unit on the streets of Philadelphia. If this, unlike other CNN reports, is actually true, then I say good, because the lower the price, the lower the real crime rate. Real crimes are crimes of fraud and violence, the kind of crimes that you create when you practice prohibition.

The solution is obvious: legalize drugs, all drugs. It’s none of your business, anyway, what other people ingest, but at least by legalizing drugs you can take the real crime out of so-called crime. Some people who don’t use drugs will then be able to use them. Maybe they’ll use them only on weekends. Maybe they’ll become addicted (like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who got that way despite the fact that hard drugs are illegal). Libertarians should not pretend that these bad effects won’t happen. But call me heartless — this is a small price to pay for the enormous heartlessness of the War on Drugs.

And the really horrible thing is that I’m not saying anything new. Everybody knows these facts. Everybody is capable of making these deductions. If you somehow manage to avoid making them, don’t tell me how much you mourn the death of people like Philip Seymour Hoffman. You have a lot more to regret than that.




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One Flapper Escapes the Trap

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America’s glorious War on Drugs is viewed with increasing skepticism. Because people keep proposing different variations of it, we never stop talking about it. But we keep talking about it in the same way. Public debate almost always dwells on the superficial aspects, rarely touching upon those closest to the heart.

The argument that addiction to, or abuse of, certain substances is of greater concern to “society” than it is to us as individuals is the basis of every form of prohibition. It claims that we belong to others more than we do to ourselves. But to prohibit certain substances because people might abuse them is a violation of human dignity. If our lives are “society’s” more than they are our own, then we are something less than entirely human.

I’ve never used illegal drugs. Even though I was a teenager during the seventies, when supposedly “everybody did it.” Was that because drugs were against the law? I don’t think so.

I didn’t hang around with people who had access to anything stronger than marijuana. And I had plenty of opportunity to see how that affected them. It made them stupid, and it made them stink. I didn’t want to be stupid, and I didn’t want to stink.

As an adult, I became addicted to an entirely legal substance: alcohol. Would I have used it if it had been illegal? As illegality wasn’t what deterred me from smoking weed, it probably would have had little to do with keeping me from drinking. I liked the taste of booze, and it made me feel powerful and utterly brilliant. It was fetishized (by the “society” to which I supposedly belong) as a rite of passage to all things grown-up and glamorous, and those were exactly the things I wanted to be.

Had I been a flapper in the speakeasy days, I’d have been swilling gin and dancing the Charleston right along with the rest of them.

Perhaps sensing the utilitarian coldness of the “society owns us” line, many prohibitionists appeal to our Inner Five-Year-Old. They simply care about us — more than we may care about ourselves. But why does their concern for us take precedence over our own? It comes around, no less than the other argument, to claiming that somebody else is more important than we are.

Their concern purportedly trumps ours. But I’ve known many alcoholics and other addicts who are valiantly battling their addiction. And not one of us got clean or sober because anybody else wanted us to. Any recovery program will tell you that is never enough. If we live and recover instead of giving up and dying, it can only be because we value ourselves enough to believe that our lives are worthwhile.

No one else can make you value yourself. Nor is it likely to add to your estimation of yourself to be told that somebody else’s interest in you is more important than your own. None of the people who have overcome an addiction to illegal drugs did so because of such an appeal. That wouldn’t appeal to anybody. Which is probably why — since it is the argument so often used — so many people are hooked on illegal drugs.

The drive to illegalize booze got traction during the industrial revolution. The saloon became the place to be counted, herded, and manipulated into voting as the powerful desired. Might this not have been because people had already begun to feel more like sheep than like human beings? Could not the desire to intoxicate oneself into oblivion have something to do with the abuse of alcohol (and drugs) in the first place?

How, then, will playing upon the sense that somebody else owns us — that we are not people in our own right in any meaningful sense — make us want to drink or use drugs any less?

Within every individual is that spark of humanity that gives us our identity. That recognition of our own worth. It goes beyond the mere survival instinct found in animals, driving each of us not only to exist, but to live. To strive for wisdom and achievement. To be free not simply from some trap (the highest aspiration of an animal), but to pursue a higher purpose.

I got sober — and stay sober — because I want to live the fullest life possible. The more “society” permits the liberty for human beings to reach their potential, the less attractive an escape into intoxication will be. Then prohibition schemes of every sort will be as dead as the flappers and bootleggers of our past.




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To Protect Us from Ourselves

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When the AIDS epidemic began in the late 1970s, contracting the virus was a virtual death sentence. No one had a cure. In fact, at first, there wasn't even a diagnosis. People just weakened and wasted away until they died, usually of pneumonia. I don't know anyone who didn't know someone who died from the mysterious illness during the 1980s.

Once it was diagnosed, finding a cure became a top priority, and pharmaceutical researchers who had promising results in lab experiments were fast-tracked to human trials in an effort to out-pace the death toll. But people were dying faster than the cure could be found. Moreover, only half the people participating in the tests were given the medications that might cure them; the other half were given a placebo, and even their doctors did not know who was getting the real thing. The FDA controlled the game, and while they were fast-tracking the research, they weren't fast enough for the patients who were dying at alarming rates, and alarmingly fast.

Meanwhile, researchers in other countries were working just as hard to find a cure. AIDS sufferers desperate for medicine went abroad for treatment. Many treatments consisted of high doses of vitamin and mineral supplements that would boost the compromised immune system, giving the body the strength to fight the virus. These supplements and medications were not illegal, but they were not approved either. Consequently, individuals could use them, but they could not sell them. To circumvent this technicality, "buyers clubs" were born. By purchasing a monthly membership, people could have all the supplements they needed for free. The FDA didn't like these buyers clubs, but they couldn't stop them unless the specific supplements were declared illegal to use. Buyers clubs flourished around the country as thousands of terminally ill patients lined up for treatment.

He shouts at his doctor, "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment.

Dallas Buyers Club tells the story of Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), an electrical engineer and rodeo rider who contracted the AIDS virus in 1985. Given just 30 days to live, he begs to get into the clinical trials or to buy AZT, the only drug that was showing any promise. When he can't get into the clinical trials or buy the drug outright, he shouts at his doctor (Jennifer Garner), "Screw the FDA! I'm going to be DOA!" Then he drives to Mexico to find his own treatment from Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne), an American who has lost his license to practice medicine in the US. The Dallas Buyers Club is born, and Woodroof lives another seven years, along with hundreds of other survivors who purchase memberships from him. The film documents his fight with the FDA as he struggles to keep his supplements from being actively banned instead of simply "not approved."

Ron Woodroof is about as unlikely a hero as you will ever find in a film. A disgusting man with disgusting habits, he's a foul-mouthed, homophobic, alcoholic, coke-snorting, porn-viewing womanizer without an ounce of the milk of human kindness. Both F words — “fuckin'” and “faggot” — regularly spew from his mouth. "Fifty bucks?" he says incredulously to a desperate young man who has come to join the buyers club. Then he strides to the door of his motel-room-turned-"club"-office and shouts to the men lined up in the parking lot, "Membership is four hundred bucks. You got that? Four hundred bucks. I'm not running no goddam charity!" He turns to the frightened young man: "Don't you come back here till you got $350 more." He's in it for the money. Saving lives is just a byproduct.

Ron learns what prejudice feels like when his friends turn against him. They call him "faggot" because they assume that's how he acquired the disease, yet they avoid him because they are afraid of catching it by standing too close. In anger Woodroof spits at them, knowing that his body fluids have become a deadly weapon. Early research demonstrated that AIDS mostly occurred among the "4H" group: homosexuals, heroin users, Haitians, and hemophiliacs. I remember the dark joke that used to circulate in the 80s: "What's the worst thing about getting AIDS? Convincing your parents that you're Haitian." But it was also a danger among promiscuous heterosexuals who engaged in indiscriminate, unprotected sex. And that was the way Ron Woodroof lived his life. He practically shouts "Hallelujah" when a woman who is HIV-positive joins the Buyers Club, because now he can have sex again without worrying about transmitting the disease.

The film portrays the FDA as the bad guys, in cahoots with the pharmaceutical companies and preventing sick people from getting the treatment they want and need. Like most libertarians, I am convinced that the FDA does as much harm in delaying the approval of effective treatments or approving the use of harmful treatments as it does good in its stated purpose of protecting the public. Dr. Vass tells Woodroof that the high dose of AZT used in the FDA-approved trials was toxic, poisoning the body along with the virus. Woodroof gets better when he stops taking his black-market AZT and starts taking Vass' supplements (as well as experimental Interferon he eventually buys in Japan).

However, I have to suggest that the patients involved in the clinical trials bear some of the blame for the skewed results of the early tests of AZT. Many of them were sharing or selling their meds in order to help friends who were also infected but could not get into the trials. For example, Rayon (Jared Leto) a transvestite whom Ron reluctantly befriends in the hospital, is selling half his AZT to his partner, who also has AIDS. This would have skewed Rayon's results. When Rayon got better, researchers naturally assumed that the dosage they prescribed was correct, when actually he was taking half as much as they thought he was taking. Future patients would be prescribed more than they needed, and they would not get better. These trials were flawed, because the patients were not being honest.

Of course, the whole system was flawed because the market was not allowed to operate in the open. As one almost-wise judge says in the movie, "Someone who is terminally ill ought to be allowed to take whatever he wants. But that is not the law." I would go one step further: we are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions — which includes getting sick and having to pay for treatment from our own pockets or the private insurance we pay for (which might not be available to us if our willful actions have caused the problem.) We don't need government watchdogs. Private organizations such as Consumer Reports, the Better Business Bureau, PCGS (Professional Coin Grading Service), and even Good Housekeeping, with its Seal of Approval, work just fine, thank you very much. But if someone agrees to participate in a clinical trial, whether publicly or privately funded, that person is obligated to be honest and diligent in maintaining the integrity of the tests.

We are all terminal. We are all going to die. We ought to be able to decide what we put into our bodies, as long as we accept the consequences of our actions.

Matthew McConaughey lost 38 pounds for this role, and he looks terrible. His cheeks are sunken, his eyes dull, his skin sallow. Other actors have undergone massive weight loss for particular roles; Christian Bale and Tom Hanks come immediately to mind, as well as Jared Leto, who lost 30 pounds for his role as Rayon in this film. But McConaughey does not seem to be bouncing back from this extreme weight loss as well as others have. In more recent roles this year his skin still looks sallow, and his eyes still have that dark, almost vacant brightness. While I admire his dedication to his craft, and I'm not surprised that so many critics are predicting Oscar nominations for McConaughey and Leto, I hope that this fine actor has not inflicted permanent damage on his liver or other organs in order to make this film, especially because it is not a great film. It's an important topic, but the movie drags in places, and I caught myself looking at my watch several times.

Moreover, it is borderline pornographic, from the opening scene when Woodroof is having a threesome at a rodeo and continuing through his voyeuristic visits to strip clubs, to the porn adorning his walls, to additional threesomes — or maybe it was foursomes; I had to stop looking — even after he finds out he has AIDS. I realize that director Jean-Marc Vallee was developing Woodroof's seedy character with these scenes, but I think the audience could have gotten the point without the scenes being so graphic. As a result, this important movie with its strong libertarian theme is making the rounds of the art houses instead of the major theaters, where it could (and should) have been seen by hundreds of thousands more viewers, viewers whose minds might have been changed about the FDA and other government agencies created to "protect us from ourselves." These scenes might not bother you, but I will be recommending that my friends read the article written by Bill Minutaglio for the Dallas Morning News on which this story is based. Here is a link: http://www.buyersclubdallas.com/.


Editor's Note: Review of "Dallas Buyers Club," directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Voltage Pictures, 2013, 117 minutes.



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