Universal Translator

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Groom's Father's Argument

Earlier today I was listening to the August 27th Best of the Left podcast, which was devoted to the issue of drug legalization as a viable public policy. I always find this topic fascinating, because it's actually comprised of many different but related issues. What illicit drugs, if any, should be legalized? What effect will legalization have on drug consumption? On drug violence? How much money could be saved if we stopped prosecuting The Drug War? Would we see significant revenue if we taxed these drugs? Is a certain amount of drug use in society acceptable and - if so - shouldn't the quality of these newly legalized drugs be regulated? How? What would happen if we decriminalized these drugs but placed people caught with drugs in treatment centers? etc., etc., etc.

But as intriguing as I find this entire topic, I never can get myself too invested in it because for all intents and purposes the issue is moot. I cannot for the life of me see how at any time in the foreseeable future the United States would ever be willing to change the scorched earth policy we've followed for the past few decades in our stupid, stupid War on Drugs.

There are a lot of reasons for this. We've got the social conservatives, of course, for whom any use of drugs now considered illegal is evil. Even for those Americans who don't think drugs are necessarily and always evil, we've got generations who have been brainwashed by decades of After School Specials and the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels' made-for-teevee movies that tell us that even an occasional joint can inevitably lead one's children into a lifelong smack habit that has them turning tricks in alleys to get their next fix. Hell, we've even got an economic lobby interested in keeping drug use illegal, thanks to our wonderfully short-sighted decision to privatize our prisons such that companies get rich the more people they can convince us should be locked up.

But - by far - the single greatest reason America can't possibly call a ceasefire in its War on Drugs is what I call "The Groom's Father's Argument."

Some years ago, when I was living in Miami, two friends of mine decided to marry. The bride's family was from the Dominican Republic; the groom's family had emigrated from Cuba. The plan was to hold the wedding in Santo Domingo and then afterward the bride and groom were to spend their honeymoon at a golf and beach resort some hours away called "Casa de Campo." The bride and groom invited anyone who attended the wedding to spend the first couple of days with them at the resort (which was indeed very nice) swimming and sunning and playing golf. I was one of the many people who thought that sounded like a good idea.

And so, the day after the wedding, those of us who had decided to spend some time at Casa de Campo piled into a group of minivans the resort had dispatched to pick us up. I ended up in a minivan with the groom's father, an older gentleman who had lived in Cuba as a boy. He and I talked a great deal on the way up, and struck up what I thought was a genuine rapport. After an hour and a half or so I felt comfortable enough to ask him about something that had been on my mind since almost immediately I moved to Miami. I wanted to ask him about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.

Now, this can be a delicate subject with Cuban-Americans, particularly older Cuban-Americans, and so I tried to approach the matter sensitively. I brought it up, and I noted that this embargo had been in place, in one form or another, for decades now. He agreed with me that this was so.

Then I pointed out that it seemed to have done nothing to weaken Castro's grip on power; once again, the groom's father agreed with me.

I then suggested that the embargo might even be counterproductive, because there are countries in the world who do not share a reflexive and rabid revulsion toward all things Communist, and that the embargo allowed Castro to claim to the rest of the world that poor, tiny Cuba was being picked on by the mighty United States. The older man conceded that this probably was the case.

I also pointed out that, while the embargo wasn't driving Castro from power, Cuba's inability to trade with the largest economy in the Western Hemisphere certainly was hurting its citizens, most of whom live in poverty. The groom's father nodded in agreement.

Moreover, I said, it seemed a shame that U.S. policy helped divide so many Cuban families who had members residing both in the United States and on the island. At this my friend's father became very agitated, and spoke passionately about how much he regretted not having been able to remain united with his cousins.

"So why," I asked, "are so many Cuban-Americans so determined to support this embargo? It isn't doing anything good, it may even be counterproductive, and it definitely is hurting the Cuban people."

"Because," the older man told me portentiously, "if we give up the embargo, then Fidel will have won."

And that was the only answer my friend's father needed, that answer alone was sufficient for him. By the time I got to meet the man he was no longer concerned that the embargo was ineffective or indeed might actually run counter to his real goals. He was only concerned with making sure that Fidel Castro didn't get to chalk one up in the "win column." I nodded my understanding, and changed the subject.

* * *

Unfortunately, that same attitude seems to drive a great deal of public policy. By all accounts the War on Drugs is a failure, a huge drain on our national resources and -- thanks to the outsized profits that can be made trafficking in illicit substances -- a large source of our nation's violent crime. But it doesn't matter. If we were to call a ceasefire then we'd have to admit that waging The Drug War was the wrong thing to have done in the first place. Better to keep doing something stupid than to admit that we're doing something stupid.

The same thing happened with the Vietnam War. We know now that LBJ and Richard Nixon both believed that the war ultimately was unwinnable, but neither wanted to be the president that lost a war. Better to keep doing something stupid than to admit we were doing stupid. And so how many of the 58,209 American servicemembers -- not to mention the almost uncountable number of Vietnamese -- who lost their lives in that conflict might have lived but for this all too human but nevertheless indefensible desire to avoid admitting a mistake?

And we saw it play out again, recently, with the Iraq War. Remember how public opinion turned on that war when the country finally realized that Bush the Feckless and his Mayberry Machiavellis really had no idea what to do once Baghdad fell? Remember the arguments floated then for why we had to stay in Iraq? "If we leave now, all those who have died already will have died in vain." (Even assuming that were true, does that mean it is better to have yet more people die in vain?) And even more on the nose: "The insurgents don't want us there, so if we leave then they will have won." (Won what, exactly?) How are these arguments not precisely the argument my friend's father gave me so many years ago to justify his continued support for a policy that even he himself had to admit did not work?

And isn't this exactly (albeit implicitly) how we justify our continued presence in Afghanistan? I really have no legitimate idea why we are still in Afghanistan. Al-Queda isn't there, and they're the ones who attacked us almost exactly ten years ago. Obama finally killed Osama bin Laden, and he was the one who masterminded that attack. It seems to me that the only reason we are still fighting the Afghans is because the Afghans are fighting us, and they are fighting us because we won't leave. But of course we can't be seen to leave, because then "they will have won." I suppose only if the Afghans want us to stay can we ever decide to leave.

I swear, I start thinking about things like this, I go out of my mind. If we're ever going to become a people that can adopt reasonable and rational policies without literally being forced to do so only after the dumb and failing policies we first attempted required too much blood or treasure or both . . .then we're going to have to learn to stop making The Groom's Father's Argument.


  1. Yes, this "can't let the other guy win" mentality explains a lot of human behavior, such as flying the confederate flag in your neighborhood.

    Note that Nixon actually did something counter to that when he opened relations with China. I loathed Nixon, and still do, but he did a few good things with his popularity high.

  2. I'm very much with you when it coms to Nixon. From all I've read, Nixon was a horrible, twisted person fueled by paranoia and resentment. Still, looking over some of the things he did (the EPA, for example) it is difficult now to recognize him as the hard-right Conservative he was thought to be 40 years ago. If he were to run today, he'd probably fit right in with the Democratic party. Then again, what with his penchant for raising taxes when necessary and closing tax loopholes, so might Reagan. It is a mark of just how far to the right the country's political parties have shifted.

    I'm still camping out, waiting for the electrician to get the power to my place hooked back up, but I hope your relatives in NYC and Maine made out okay.

  3. Thanks, the Maine and NYC crowd had no problems to speak of. I'm not even sure either of them lost power. Sherry's grand-niece said the worst part was boredom, cooped up waiting for it to blow over...