I don't do this often, but I'm writing here to stump for something. I want you to take 30 seconds and go sign the Vienna Declaration, because I think it's important and I think if enough people do it, we might make a dent in our expensive, destructive drug policies. So you can do that right here. (In fact, go ahead and do that, please.) Then I want you to invite more people to sign. It's free, it's fast, it's easy.
Now. If you haven't signed, here's my spiel. The very short version is, Sane drug policy fights AIDS. The longer version is longer.
I know a couple back in Arkansas – nice folks with cute kids – who used to cook a lot of meth. They decided it wasn't the best career path once they became parents, but when they talk about those days, you get the sense that they miss the life, at least a little. They were skinny. They were productive. They turned into chainsmoking paranoiacs, but really, when your cheekbones are jutting out fetchingly and you get to clean your truck at an empty carwash at 3:30 a.m. because you're obsessive and insomniac, a smidgen of cardiovascular damage seems a low price to pay, no?
I'd sooner drink a highball of kerosene than smoke meth. But it's fascinating to me that some people disagree, and ingest a recipe that calls for hydrochloric acid. Drug preferences are personal and yet do follow some predictable trajectories. You probably scratch your itch with some socially acceptable fix – nicotine, caffeine or alcohol. You have also, guessing by the latest surveys, probably broken a law by using other drugs – marijuana, prescription drugs, mushrooms or coke. You likely did so without any overriding concern that you would be arrested, though the potential was there.
You probably haven't injected yourself with heroin, other opiates or cocaine, though worldwide there might be 16 million or so who do. People who do undertake a great deal of risk. They risk becoming zombified addicts. They risk getting sick from the fillers that dealers use to cut those drugs (I'm told baby laxative is common in heroin). They risk imprisonment, they risk physical violence, they risk hepatitis, and worse. As a group, intravenous drug users account for perhaps 10 percent of the world's 33 million HIV cases.
The risks are enormous, but most of those users are self-medicating in some fashion, just as you and I do. Only they do it to a degree many of us would call suicidal.
But it's not the same as suicide. It's reversible. People come back from heroin addictions. It happens all the time.
On Tuesday, I was at Insite, the Vancouver facility where users can shoot up under the watch of a medical staff. Europe has several safe-injection (or supervised-injection, if you prefer) facilities; Insite is the only one in North America. Now, Insite doesn't hand out drugs, so you gotta BYO. A friend of mine sent an exchange she had with her brother who wrote that “Vancouver administers opiates to its vast population of addicts” – which, though a common misconception, is pretty far from the truth. What you can get, free, is sterile paraphernalia, a working sink, a tourniquet. You're not using pothole puddlewater to cook your hit, as a professor of mine has witnessed. You're not sharing needles. You're not shooting up around people who will rape you or rob you once you're high. You're not going to die from an overdose: Insite to date has resuscitated everyone who has OD'ed there. What you do get is a clean, well-lighted place to do your business, and maybe get some medical care. And you get to go where everybody knows your name. That's important. Because when you decide you're tired of being high all the time, you can walk in and say, “I want to talk about getting clean,” which I saw a young man do on Tuesday morning. And they can connect you to social services that specialize in dealing with drug users – something not everyone in the medical or social welfare is willing to do.
Maybe, too, when you come back from addiction, you won't have shredded your veins. Maybe you won't have hep C. Maybe you won't have AIDS.
Then again, maybe you will. HIV is sexually transmitted, but it moves even quicker via dirty needles. This should concern everyone. You, I and everyone we know are six degrees from Kevin Bacon, and I think it's a fair assumption that he has had sex with a drug user. Frankly we're all in a big planetary orgy here, and at least 3 million of the people at the party have shown up with HIV only because they didn't have a clean needle.
I'm not trying to be flip. You have a stake in this, even beyond the duty to watch over the most vulnerable among us. Think about the issue without the moral baggage we bring to discussions of drug use. Don't think of Insite as a hard-drug rec room, or even as a drug treatment center. It's neither. It is much more accurately described as an infection- and violence-prevention facility.
Insite is just one way to address the big problem. The war on drugs is a fiasco. I say that in the company of such reactionary leftists as the U.S. Conference of American Mayors (“the war on drugs has failed”), former presidents of Brazil, Mexico and Colombia (“The war on drugs has failed. And it's high time to replace an ineffective strategy with more humane and efficient drug policies,” in the Wall Street Journal), U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerliokowske (“[I]t has not been successful”) and at least 65 percent of Americans.
So here's why the Vienna Declaration is worth a glance. It's a call by leading AIDS and public health authorities to recast drug policy to account for the massive harm that drug prohibition wreaks. It calls for science, not ideology, to drive drug policy. It has a whole slew of endorsements from organizations and scientists and Nobel laureates. It aims to carry the weight of those endorsements, including yours, to the next International AIDS Conference, in 2012, in Washington D.C. It looks for ways to keep the stigma of drugs from overriding our better judgment.
Can it shift American policy? Hell, why don't we find out?
“I know it sounds crazy. But I could see the look in her eye. This mammal, this 50-ton mammal, was literally saying ‘Thanks. Thanks for helping me out.’” – diver who helped to free a whale entangled in crab buoys, heard on this Radiolab broadcast at the 13:50 mark
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After going on a whale-watching jaunt in the San Juan Islands, I’m happy to report that the scouting report on humpback whales is also true for killer whales. Orcas are not only grateful creatures by nature, they’re also considerate, easygoing and introspective, if occasionally given to flights of fancy. Because sea lions – which tend to communicate with vocals that call to mind operatic belches – are not particularly discerning, they often regard orcas’ deliberations as a sign of flakiness. The sea lions’ obtuseness isn’t lost on blue herons, the bird with the keenest sense of majesty among the animals along the tour. Herons’ balletic poses fulfill their inner longing, rarely voiced, to achieve a sense of physical and spiritual harmony. Noticing the birds’ sublime equipoise, perspicacious jellyfish often defend the herons against charges of aloofness leveled by sockeye salmon, who regard herons as narcissistic. That the salmon criticize another species for haughtiness speaks to their own hypocrisy, since everyone knows those fish are stuffy and passive-aggressive even by the low standards of anadromous North American game fish. In fact the only local animal species known to have any worse manners may be the common hypothetical man-eating bear (16-minute mark in the Radiolab show).
At one point, the tour boat crossed into American waters, and for no rational reason at all, I felt a swell of national pride. The orcas, as higher-order mammals, once again made the right call. Good for them.
Forthwith, here’s a picture of an America that whales never get to see, to their enduring chagrin. Sensitive chaps that they are.
On Tuesday a journalism instructor friend of mine asked me to address a class of graduate students in the magazine program at Medill. This was funny, actually, because while I knew he wanted me to say a few words to the group at some point, I didn't know until I arrived at the office fresh off a Blue Line trip from O'Hare that he expected me to speak, uh, right then. With enough prep time to print out a few stories (on a South Florida one-time gambling wheeler-dealer, on a dark documentarian of the club-kid thug life, and on a self-immolating father of a slain Marine) from which to quote, I managed to fill about an hour of their time.
The topic was the fate of alt-weeklies at a time when weeklies and dailies alike are shrinking, fading and getting gutted. Chicago has seen this like few other cities: The third-largest city in the United States now has two daily papers that you could finish reading between the “ah” and the “choo” in your average sneeze. The students are charged with re-imagining the Reader, a free weekly that 10 years ago was a four-section broadsheet, chockablock with listings and classifieds, thick enough any given week to choke a camel; these days, it's a slender tabloid hoping just to keep its tiny head above water.
To summarize my ramblings from Tuesday, I believe I said now would be a great time to be a journalist, especially a quote-unquote alternative reporter (which is really nothing less than a locally focused magazine writer), if we didn't have bills to pay. So anemic now are the dailies that they can't help but default on their Fourth Estate duties; I was told Tuesday that the Chicago Tribune, the World's Greatest Newspaper of WGN fame, does not have a full-time reporter covering Chicago public schools. That's a district of 400,000 students and a $5.3 billion budget, roughly equivalent to the GDP of Niger. There simply are not enough hands on deck. Anyone aspiring to find a great story could do worse than stake out a department in your average major metropolitan or state government and simply go spelunking. You're bound to find something.
Another point: The writing in a weekly shouldn't sound like a daily. A daily that fashions itself a “family paper” will necessarily write to adults as though they are children. This analogy came to mind: Be the HBO to their ABC or CBS. Begin with astonishing reportage, then write it as though writing is an ongoing experiment (which it is, blessedly). Undertake in your writing the mission of literature, which poet Donald Hall described this way:
When we read great literature, something changes in us that stays changed. … If literature is nebulous or inexact; if it is impossible to determine, with scientific precision, the value or the meaning of a work of art, this inexactness is the price literature pays for representing humanity. Human beings themselves, in their feelings and thoughts, in the wanderings of their short lives, are ambiguous, ambivalent, shifting mixtures of permanence and change, direction and disorder. Because literature is true to the complexities of human feeling, different people will read the same work with different responses. Literary art will sometimes affirm that opposite things are true because they are. (Emphasis the author's.)
That said, now, don't be afraid to bring the fuckin' hammer down, unambiguously, when a story warrants.
Everyone's concerned, and rightly, that jobs will be hard to come by. (The anxiety of a journalism student these days mirrors that of your average 14-year-old virgin, who can see his peers caught up in this strange yet consuming activity (earning money, to uphold the journo's side of this metaphor) and yet can easily imagine himself dying poor, overeducated and thoroughly unlaid.) My advice was to follow a topic of consuming passion, write about it until everyone knows the territory you've staked out, and then get paid to cover it. That, and get paid. Get paid. Get paid. If someone else is making a dollar off your written word, then they ought to give you a couple of dimes. Get paid. Get paid to stay solvent, and to keep from depressing any further this already-depressed writers' and photographers' market. Get paid. When one writer gets paid, we all get paid. When one works for free, we all do.
As for getting jobs, my suggestion was to get in front of the hiring editor. Like, physically get in front of them. Send your stuff, know the job you're applying for, and make it incredibly easy for the editor to hire you. I've never hired anyone, but I've been close to the process a couple of times, and I've been hired myself. My experience, for what it's worth, is that editors hate hiring. They'd rather do just about anything else. They don't want to compare people's clips, or their resumes, or take time to show someone the ropes. It's just not an activity built into most editors' schedules; they'd rather run the publication. Do what you can to make an editor's life easy in the hiring process, and I'd wager that your odds shoot way, way up.
Several soldiers were among the standbys for a mid-morning flight from Dallas to Little Rock on Thursday, and a tall, broad young National Guard call-up wound up sitting next to me in the ninth row.
“Sir, I just want to apologize upfront,” he told me. “I haven’t had a shower in four days, and I smell.”
I told him I’d been traveling myself, and that I hadn’t had a shower in a couple of days either: “Between us, we’ve got almost a week’s worth of stink.” I asked him where he was coming from and where he was headed. Afghanistan was the point of origin, and Little Rock, home, was the destination. Seven months he’d been gone. “I can’t wait to get laid,” he said.
He turned up his iPod, and all I could hear of the music was a rolling-thunder drum attack that sounded like Scandinavian death metal on meth. I pulled my hat down over my eyes and was asleep at the window before we even left the ground. A few minutes before we landed, I came to, slid up the shade and watched us soar low over the Arkansas River and then touch down. As much as Little Rock lacks, home remains home, and I thought how fine it must feel for my fellow flyer after having been at war for the better part of a year.
The flight attendant took to the intercom, reminding everyone that we were now free to use our cell phones, and thanking us for flying American Airlines, “part of the Oneworld alliance.”
The solider stiffened. “One World Alliance?” he said. “What’s that?”
I explained that it’s a consortium that lets people use their frequent flyer miles among different airlines. “I admit, it does sound kind of ominous,” I said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “‘One World Alliance.’ Like someone else I’ll have to fight.”
In case anyone is still under the impression that American forces detain and punish only terrorists, that bombings can be surgical, that only the bad guys kill innocent people, that only other governments' militaries stand and lie to their citizens, and that the very light of God's good graces shines like a divine beacon out of Uncle Sam's benevolent asshole, please take a second to remind yourself of what happens when you support war as a policy, as an ideal, and as a culture.
We have Reuters' tenacity and Wikileaks.org to thank for the release of this video, which depicts a 2007 helicopter mission in Iraq. In it, we see and hear Americans misidentifying two journalists' cameras as weapons, then making the decision to hose down a group of suspected insurgents with gunfire. A little later, a van pulls up to help a wounded man. That vehicle, too, is obliterated, on the grounds that brown men were attending to a man already determined to be a threat.
As it turns out, the attack was off. Way off. I'd rather not link to the Huffington Post, because I regard it as something of a vampire on my profession, but it has the best coverage at the moment, so here ya' go.
As soldiers arrive to lug wounded children away from the scene, the tape crackles: "Well, it's their fault for bringing their kids into a battle." Giving the benefit of the doubt to soldiers in this edited tape, we can only guess whether one wondered, at any point, whether the presence of children in fact suggested the battle was in their minds alone.
Look, the military has its share of fuck-ups, same as any business. This is a horrendous action, a blatant atrocity, but still you can't pin it all on a few triggerhappy goons. Frankly we just need a clear-eyed accounting of any endeavor in which blowing up humans based on spotty visual evidence is anything like a good idea. For moral, economic and strategic reasons, a policy of violence ought to be a last resort. Every time Americans forces massacre people for holding oblong objects on a street corner, or bomb a wedding party, or torture people, I'm chagrined that 9/11 continues to be such a resounding success.