The Tuesday

Culture

One Wrong Step

Demi Lovato performs the national anthem before Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., February 2, 2020. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
A case for humility in apprehending life’s many complications

Welcome to “The Tuesday,” a weekly newsletter about politics, language, culture, and, apparently, celebrity gossip. To subscribe to “The Tuesday,” follow this link.

Some Varieties of Addiction

Because I am blessedly insulated from many aspects of pop culture, I know the name “Demi Lovato” only from a (typically) brilliant Remy parody. But now that I know her name, I have acquired another more interesting pair of words: “California sober.”

Lovato, for those of you who are similarly insulated, is an American pop singer who found her way into the tabloid headlines after overdosing on a heroin-fentanyl cocktail in the summer of 2018. The overdose was horrifying, and she still cannot drive a car because of vision loss associated with brain damage. She has since sought treatment for her drug problem and describes herself as “California sober,” a tongue-in-cheek term of recent coinage that entails abstinence from so-called hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine but the continued moderate use of marijuana and/or alcohol. “California sober” accords with an approach to substance abuse broadly known as “harm reduction,” which focuses on preventing the worst kind of self-destructive behavior associated with drug use rather than the criterion of absolute abstinence.

Lovato has come under criticism for her use of the term, both from addiction professionals (by which I mean doctors and therapists, not the other kind of addiction professional) and from recovering addicts who protest that to speak of qualified sobriety is an “insult” to those who practice a more total form of abstinence. There is a certain kind of American who always is looking for something to be insulted about. Many of them have New York Times columns.

Addiction recovery exemplifies several American tendencies. One is our ability to make an ersatz religion out of practically anything (count me with David Foster Wallace among those who believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is pretty obviously a cult, albeit a largely benign and well-intentioned one). Another is our ability to make a business out of anything (turnover in the addiction business is estimated at $42 billion a year in the United States). And a third is our ability to make Kulturkampf out of anything.

Human beings are storytelling creatures, and the mandate to create a unifying, comprehensive narrative about drug addiction is no less powerful than the need to create a unifying, comprehensive narrative about politics, the economy, or anything else. For practitioners of AA-style recovery, “California sober” is not only an insult but heresy. Of course, reality is much more complex than our storytelling accounts for. The D.A.R.E. and Reefer Madness school of propaganda would have you believe otherwise, but the vast majority of people who try serious drugs, including opiates/opioids and cocaine, never develop a problem with them. Overdosing on LSD is practically impossible to do by accident; the drug is not physically addictive. As Anthony Daniels (writing as Theodore Dalrymple) documents in his Romancing Opiates: Pharmaceutical Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy, the popular understanding of heroin addiction is wildly exaggerated, and heroin withdrawal is a relatively minor medical issue, far less dangerous than alcohol withdrawal. There are people who develop a problem with cocaine or heroin who give up those drugs but continue to use alcohol or marijuana without a problem. But we do love our stories, especially when they include a bright moral line with our kind of people on one side and the wrong kind of people on the other.

One of the problems with “California sober” is its lumping in marijuana and alcohol together. There are a great many people who have serious drug problems who are able to put aside heroin or cocaine but continue to have lifelong problems with alcohol, and some who develop a problem with alcohol as a substitute after overcoming a problem with a different drug. There are many reasons to believe that alcohol is far more dangerous to someone with other addiction problems than marijuana is. Of course, most people who use alcohol use it responsibly, and there is a world of difference between someone who has a glass of Bordeaux a few times a week and the guy who was sitting on the curb in front of a 7-Eleven a few blocks from my house this morning nursing a tallboy at 8 a.m.

We have a long tradition associated with alcohol, which is intertwined with everything from our cooking to our religion. But if that tradition were not there and we were starting from scratch, a rational society would probably have far more serious reservations about alcohol than about marijuana. Put another way: If alcohol had been invented last week, there is no way in hell we would let people sell it. That doesn’t mean that alcohol prohibition would be a good idea — no more than the prohibition of marijuana or other drugs is a good idea — but a mature and responsible politics recognizes degrees of interest richer than “legally permitted” vs. “legally prohibited.”

(N.B.: As my friend Jay Nordlinger sometimes points out, it is a fiction that “Prohibition didn’t work” — alcohol consumption substantially decreased after Prohibition was enacted. It was still a bad policy, in my view, but reality is complicated.)

We love our stories, and one of the stories we love best — it does not speak very well of us — is the humiliation of celebrities. Any opportunity for recreational cruelty will find many takers, but these more than most. My goodness, how people delighted in the personal troubles of Tiger Woods and the financial woes of Allen Iverson. (Race is a subject that induces hysteria in the American conversation, but it does seem to me that there is a special contempt brought to bear on famous black men who suffer a financial reversal. It seemed to me that there was much more contempt and ridicule heaped upon, say, MC Hammer during his bankruptcy than on Willie Nelson during his IRS-related tax problems, and much of that contempt had a familiar racial flavor: Hammer was a flashy spendthrift with too much jewelry, while Willie was a lovable outlaw heroically resisting the IRS. I don’t want to sidetrack myself here, but I have noted in the past that if Barack Obama had rocked a big-ass gold Rolex of the kind sported by Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson, the resulting chorus of mortified denunciation would have been loud enough to drown out the engines of Air Force One.) Sometimes, the ritual humiliation of celebrities is the prelude to an eventual redemption story, but often it isn’t. Sometimes, someone goes from the top to the bottom, and we see to it that he stays at the bottom, because that is where we want him. Human beings are kind of awful that way.

(The chance to enjoy the gross pleasures of recreational cruelty is also why we exaggerate the vices of our political opponents — if they are beastly horribles, then we not only are liberated from feeling guilty about hurting them, we get to feel positively righteous about it.)

Perhaps our love of celebrity humiliation comes from the fact that the lofty status enjoyed by the likes of famous singers and mind-bogglingly wealthy athletes liberates us from that thing we are always pretending to care about so much: empathy. (By empathy we mostly mean sympathy, but that is a fight for another time.) People who are rich and famous, who have splendid resources and social connections, do not, according to a certain line of thinking, deserve our consideration. These high and mighty, who have so much more than . . . well, us . . . had everything going for them, messed it up, anyway, and so we are, according to this line of thinking, entitled to enjoy their troubles.

But people are people, and they don’t stop being people when they have money and fame. I happen to be writing this column within view of a basketball court where one of the 400 or so wealthiest men in the world stops by to shoot hoops from time to time. (I don’t see him today.) If he puts his foot down the wrong way, he is going to twist his ankle like anybody else, and, because he is not a young man, he’s more likely to injure himself than he would otherwise be. Age doesn’t care how many billions he has or about the fact that people sometimes stop to take pictures of him while he practices his jump-shot. There is a reason such phrases as “one false move” and “one wrong step” resonate with us.

One wrong step — one wrong literal step — can change a life. When I was about twelve years old, I was at the home of a friend my age who was roughhousing around with his father. His dad gave him a gentle shove, but he put his foot down just the wrong way and stumbled backward several steps and fell, back first, through a glass table. A shard of glass went all the way through him, like a sword. He lived, but I suspect his life was never the same. I am positively confident that his father’s life was never the same. One wrong step.

Mental-health problems, of which addiction is one important kind, are a more prominent feature of public life in our time than they seem to have been in the past. It may be the case, as a few old veterans I know insist, that we simply are softer now and less able to endure the ordinary stresses and strains of life. It may be that the same problems existed in the past but simply weren’t acknowledged or else were talked about in a different way. We conservatives have been known to go on at some length about character, and character is important: But is it really character that determines why one man enjoys a cocktail before dinner on Saturday nights with no problem, while another has a “Sunday morning coming down” and puts a plug in the jug, while yet another ends up drinking a breakfast beer in front of a 7-Eleven? I kind of doubt that character is all there is to the story. But still we desire — practically demand — that our stories should be simple: In one telling, a drinking problem or a heroin problem is just a matter of free will and bad choices; in another telling, a substance-abuse problem is something that “just happens” to people, like cancer.

(Not that we’ll let cancer just be cancer — that has to be a moral test, too: “He must have been a smoker.”)

“California sober” probably works for some people. I hope it works for Demi Lovato. It probably works better for people who have an ample supply of money and other resources than it does for people who are poor, unemployed, dependent, suffering from further mental-health problems, etc. People with money have problems, too, and the lucky ones have problems that can be solved, or at least mitigated, with money. But money has its limits. Housing is very expensive in California and in big progressive cities, but the tent cities in Austin and Los Angeles are not evidence of an economic problem — they are evidence of a mental-health problem. These are refugee camps, properly understood, but not for economic refugees.

If we would step outside of our stories for a moment — as we should, given that they are mostly fiction — then we might see something in these episodes other than the chance to smugly enjoy having our biases confirmed. There is a seductive kind of pleasure, gleeful and prideful, in being told that the people we already were inclined to think of as awful really are awful. But that’s just another destructive addiction. Frankly, I have more respect for the needle.

One wrong step — a thought that is or ought to be, if you will forgive the word, sobering.

Words About Words

A reader from Ireland writes in about gendered languages and my discussion of the same with Charles C. W. Cooke. He informs me that the Irish word for girl, cailín (source of the name Colleen) is grammatically masculine. Sometimes, grammatical forms are linked to the meaning of a word, and sometimes they aren’t. Making a big political fuss out of the fact that some languages are gendered — e.g. the atrociously illiterate neologism Latinx — is silly.

(And: Yes, it’s Irish word, not Gaelic word.)

You see similar things across languages, for example in Latin where the words for such traditionally male occupations as farmer and sailor have feminine endings even though they are grammatically masculine: nauta, agricola. There’s probably a reason for that (perhaps the association of farmers and sailors with notionally feminine entities, the earth and the sea, respectively), but Romans didn’t walk around looking at farmers sideways because the word for their occupation ends in -a. Our language is not grammatically gendered the way the Romance languages are, but gender comes up, often engendering stupid debates. English speakers who are not cripplingly neurotic are perfectly capable of understanding that a woman may be the “chairman of the board” or that the use of the generic “he” in a sentence does not exclude women from it.

A particularly interesting example to me is the English girl, which originally referred to a young child of either sex. Our friends over at the Online Etymology Dictionary quote Anatoly Liberman:

Girl does not go back to any Old English or Old Germanic form. It is part of a large group of Germanic words whose root begins with a g or k and ends in r. The final consonant in girl is a diminutive suffix. The g-r words denote young animals, children, and all kinds of creatures considered immature, worthless, or past their prime.

But if we really want to get into the cultural politics of sex and gender, then we should start with the displacement of the word — and fact — of sex by gender.

Rampant Prescriptivism

The gentlemen of the Oklahoma Bar Association write that they “are hoping to take a different tact” on a project, to which I will untactfully reply: Get it together, you feckless Joads.

Oklahoma has some beautiful lakes, but it is not exactly the center of American sailing life. National Review readers have no excuse for not knowing their sailing terms, and so of course you all already know that the expression is “take a different tack.”

To tack is to “change course by turning a boat’s head into and through the wind” the Oxford dictionary people tell us. (Oxford, mind you: I’m more inclined to take their word for it when it comes to rowing terms.) From that use, we get the more general “change tack” or “new tack” meaning a new direction for an endeavor. I suspect that tact found its way into the formulation by way of association with tactic, since to change tack might very well mean to change tactics, too.

Tactic comes from the same Greek root as technique and technology (τέχνη, tékhnē, meaning art or craft) whereas the nautical tack comes from the same Germanic root as tine (the pointy part of a fork) and the English tack in its sense of fastener: a tack is something that holds something in place, including, in some cases, a rope that holds a sail at a particular angle. Equipment suited to a particular task, such as fishing, is tackle.

So, pin this to your frontal lobe: It’s “change tack,” not “change tact.”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

You can buy my most recent book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Generally less sympathetic than this edition of “The Tuesday.”

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In Closing

It being Easter, I thought I would share something that came up in some reading earlier this week. I have heard sermons touching on the biblical story of the righteous prophet Hosea and his unfaithful wife, Gomer, a few dozen times over the course of my life. Naturally (at least naturally to me), I always thought the story was about Hosea, an example of heroic forgiveness that we should emulate. And that is true as far as it goes, but at some point, I came to understand that I was identifying with the wrong character in the story altogether. The heroic self-conception dies hard, even in those of us who have no special claim to it. Easter’s empty tomb is indeed a triumph — over death, over the gates of hell, but, mostly, over us, all of us Gomers and prodigal sons. To believe in redemption is to believe first in the need for redemption.

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