BOOZE AND DRUGS

There’s a great scene in “Breaking Bad” where Walt White and Hank, his DEA brother-in-law, discuss the thin line between what’s legal and what’s not. And that even good people can topple over sometimes onto the wrong side of the line for the simplest of things.

Much has been made of Robin Williams’ on and off drug problems and struggle with alcohol, but I would suggest when he decided to end it all he was straight.

On October 28, 1919 – a date that will live in infamy if not the annals of stupidity – the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act over President Wilson’s veto and prohibited the sale of alcohol to the public. And what was the effect of that? It made gangsters like Al Capone very wealthy men. By 1925, in New York alone, there were, estimated, between 30,000 and 100,000 speakeasy clubs. The moral of the story? If people want something bad enough they’ll get it. Making it illegal just insures that you have to pay inflated prices for it and deal with criminals and underworld characters that brings with it its own dangers.

When Hollywood previewed the Brian DePalma remake of “The Untouchables” they found they had a major problem with it. The audience were rooting for Al Capone over the do-good law enforcement Prohibition Agent Eliot Ness. And why not? The latter was hell-bent on denying the public booze. So the studio had to shoot an extra scene early in the movie that showed Capone’s men placing a bomb in a store that wouldn’t pay protection money and a little kid was killed, thus turning the audience’s sympathy from Capone to Eliot Ness.

So, in those dim dark ages, if you knocked three times on a speakeasy door and gave the right password, you were let in to have a scotch or a gin or whatever alcoholic beverage you were seeking. Oh, and you were considered a criminal.

Alcohol was banned to stop people over-indulging. That’s like banning food because some people over-eat. I think it’s always a very dark and sinister act when the government attempts to control what should be, in a free society, one’s personal choice and responsibility.

I would argue that cigarettes have killed more people than alcohol. Why don’t we ban those? And how ineffective would that be? Again, we’d just give a lot of criminals a new business opportunity and make them a fortune. And we’d end up paying $100 for a pack of cigarettes.

In 1922, during the alcohol prohibition years, cocaine was also banned and thus another substance, that had been legal and freely available, was given over to the underworld to boost their pockets.

The celebrated Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, himself a cocaine user, prescribed the substance to his patients believing it was a cure for depression and sexual impotence. In 1884 he published an article “Uber Coca” which promoted the “benefits” of cocaine, calling it a “magical” substance.

In 1886 it got a further boost when John Pemberton included coca leaves as an ingredient in his new soft drink, Coca-Cola. This new drink was also considered to be, ironically, a cure for a hangover caused by an over-indulgence in alcohol.

During the early 1900s, cocaine and opium-laced elixirs (magical or medicinal potions), tonics and wines were broadly used by people of all social standings. Notable figures who promoted the “miraculous” effects of cocaine included inventor Thomas Edison and actress Sarah Bernhardt.

By 1905 it became popular to snort it. By 1912 The United States government reported 5000 related deaths in one year due to an over-use of cocaine. By 1922 it was officially banned, which, when news reached Sherlock Holmes it probably resulted in his suicide by throwing himself off the Reichenbach Falls.

So, like alcohol, it was not the substance itself that was lethal but rather some people’s over-use of it.

Did you know if you drink too much water you can die from it? All we need is 5000 of us to do that in any one year and perhaps they’ll ban that too.

What I’m getting at is where does one’s own personal responsibility come into it? And where’s the line where the government intervenes into our lives and criminalizes something because some people are over-indulging?

I used to listen to a talkback radio guy in L.A who was a Libertarian. Their political philosophy upholds liberty as the principal objective. Libertarians seek to maximize autonomy and freedom of choice, emphasizing political freedom, voluntary association and the primacy of human judgment.

A woman’s debate about the right to abortion is that “it is my body and the government does not own it and anything I wish to do with it should be my choice and not theirs.”

Well then, it you want to take that debate further, and not that much further, isn’t it also correct that if I own my own body then I should be allowed to do whatever I want with it? Is it not my own personal choice if I want to drink a gallon of scotch, or shoot up heroin, or snort cocaine, smoke a carton of cigarettes, or my smelly socks for that matter? And if I’ve had enough of this life isn’t it also my right to end it? Surely it only becomes a matter for law enforcement if we are intoxicated, or high or suicidal and get behind the wheel of a car? Because by doing that we are putting other people’s lives at stake. People who have chosen to want to live. Then, of course, it becomes a concern for society at large.

John Lennon once had a hit with a song that said, “Whatever gets you through the night is alright…”

I try to get through this life attempting to be as non-judgmental of others as possible. Unless of course they steal from me or attempt to harm me. If someone is struggling and needs prescription drugs to get through, or need to self-medicate themselves with something that makes them feel better, what business is it of ours? My sympathy is with those that need it, and also my prayers. But to judge Robin Williams or Jim Morrison or Heath Ledger or Elvis or any of the millions of people out there is an act of arrogance and shows a severe lack of empathy for the pain they may be carrying. Perhaps those people who sit in judgment in their ivory towers need to come down and fuck themselves.

How do you end the drug wars and get rid of the criminal element in one swift and effective move? You legalize it. At least then there would be some monitor on exactly what people are taking and what amount. And perhaps if it is noticed that some are in such pain they are over-indulging then maybe some counseling could be recommended. But again, it would be one’s personal choice as to whether they accepted that or not.

In California now and in some other U.S. states “pot” is legal with a medical prescription. Have people gone mad with it? Of course not. They buy what they need to get them through the week and go home. Like buying a 6 pack of beer.

Cannabis oil has also proven to be a great help in prolonging and enhancing the lives of cancer patients.

Believe it or not Richard Nixon was the first President that believed drug addicts should not be treated as criminals but instead needed counseling. It would certainly free up law enforcement officers to focus on more important crimes, like people murdering each other. Or the next terrorist attack.

And besides, I would’ve thought the Government would prefer us all to be medicated anyway, so that our anger would be numbed to what idiots they are.

Anyway, just thinkin’ out loud.

(c) Frank Howson 2014

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THOUGHTS ON ROBIN WILLIAMS

It was always his eyes that got to me. No matter how hard he smiled or how manic his brain was working, machine-gunning out hysterical one-liners, most of which you missed because you were too busy laughing at the last one – his eyes were sad. The sadness of a man who possibly knew that the world was insane and he was just going to go with it.

To me all the great comedians have one thing in common – they see the world from a unique point-of-view. Sometimes it’s not even that the one liners are that funny. What is humorous is their perspective on things. They see the bizarre in the things we take for granted, the mundane actions we mostly do on auto-pilot without even thinking about. But they do.

Another great example of this humour is Ricky Gervais. We identify and laugh at how silly and futile some of the things we do and say really are under the light of scrutiny.

I know a woman who worked for a TV show in Los Angeles for some time and she said one of the many guest stars on the show over the years had been Robin Williams. She told me when he arrived he was rigid with nerves. He was concerned he wouldn’t be funny. He was intimidated by the guest star on the previous week’s show and that he couldn’t top what they’d done, etc., etc., etc. She said he got so worked up he almost walked out before the taping and she had to calm him down and assure him he’d be wonderful. Perhaps that explains his rapid fire delivery of one-liners. They were being propelled at us from the nervousness he felt inside. What a drain that must’ve been on him and how exhausted he must’ve felt after every show, like a champion boxer after every title bout. Ironically, that inner fear that ate him away like a cancer also made him great.

That is the way with many great artists. Their flaws or perceived disabilities are their strengths.

Having spent many years researching the life of Bobby Darin for a new musical I have written, I was struck by a comment from his son, Dodd. He said that the heart problem that had afflicted his father from an early age also propelled him to greatness. Bobby had overheard a doctor say to his mother, “If that kid lives to sixteen it’ll be a miracle.” Now, there are two ways you can go with that knowledge. Either you just give up and think what’s the use of doing anything or you can go the other way and squeeze everything you can into every minute you have left. Dodd Darin has said, “People think that disease killed my father. Oh no, it made my father.”

Robin Williams said he was once advised to go see a shrink. He made the appointment and went to the therapist, laid down on his couch and talked about his life and his problems. At the end of it, the therapist said to him, “I think I can cure you, but you may not be funny anymore.” Robin got up, shook hands with the guy and left never to return. The world thanks him for that decision but damn, what a burden he carried for our pleasure.

Like you I will miss Robin Williams not being in the world. His absence, like that of John Lennon, makes all our lives a little colder. All I know is I’m going to miss him for a long, long time.

Every time I hear Smokey Robinson and the Miracles sing “Tracks of my Tears” I will think of him, “…So take a good look at my face, you’ll see my smile looks out of place, if you look closer it’s easy to trace the tracks of my tears.”

Rest in peace, dear man.

(c) Frank Howson 2014

WE CAN BE HEROES (JUST FOR ONE DAY).

It’s no secret – we have always craved heroes. The loner who steps forth and willingly lays down their life so that others may live. Call them Jesus, Davy Crockett, Sherlock Holmes, Joan of Arc, Sydney Carton, Gandhi, etc., etc., etc. Like the gestation of a pearl, our heroes are formed as a defense mechanism against a threatening irritant. No one is born a hero. They are made. In the words of John Wayne, “Courage is being scared to death – but saddling up anyway.” Few of us know what we’d do in a life or death moment – that split second decision to stand or flee. As illustrated in Stephen Crane’s masterpiece novel “The Red Badge of Courage” that split second decision will mark us forever as either coward or hero. I wonder how many cowards crave to return to that defining moment – and this time lay down their life in lieu of the hell of regret and shame they have since endured.

Heroes, genuine ones, are hard to come by. In fact, the times we live in seem to rarely throw them up anymore. Hence the media and movies invent them for us so we can glow and feel safe in the knowledge that giants still do walk amongst us.

But in our eagerness to find heroes we are continually disappointed at being sold snake oil. Let’s face it, there are only two types of stories that sell newspapers and magazines – the first one is to build ’em up, the second – to tear ’em down. The perfect example is Princess Diana who started out as the media’s “darling who could do no wrong” and ended up their punching bag, stalked to death. I also remember when Alan Bond was hailed a hero. And Paul Hogan. And et finitum.

The real heroes mostly go unnoticed by the press. They probably aren’t photogenic anyway. They are the battlers who work themselves to an early grave so that their kids are fed and clothed; or the person who ruins a career rather than continue to make money out of a lie; and the firemen who run into a building when everyone else is running out.

Todd Beamer was an airline passenger travelling on 9/11 when he found himself on a hi-jacked plane heading towards the White House. After initially being terrified, he summoned the courage and the support of a few other passengers by uttering the words, “Let’s roll!,” broke open the cockpit door with a food cart, overpowered the terrorists and veered United Airlines Flight 93 off its intended target, straight into a field in Pennsylvania. Ordinary people swallowing their fear, and thought of themselves, for the greater good of others.

Which brings me to Julian Assange.

Remember how excited we were in 1974 that two reporters from the Washington Post could bring down the President of America? We loved it because we didn’t much like Nixon. He looked creepy. Had a five o’clock shadow year in, year out, and hadn’t ended an unpopular war that spilled into our living rooms every night ruining dinner. What looked like a victory for freedom to us back in ’74 has, in my opinion, created an even bigger monster. Now the press feel they are entitled to know everything about all of us and report it if they think it’s newsworthy. In this new age of no boundaries there are no such things as private lives anymore. Perhaps there’s a connection here as to why there’re so few heroes around? What complex person can have their private life scrutinised and come out a saint? We have all made mistakes (hopefully learned from them), trusted the wrong people, behaved badly, been divorced, been angry, been down, been bruised. But isn’t all that stuff the sand that makes the irritation that makes the pearl?

Would J.F.K have been so well thought of if we’d known all the aspects of his private life? Would it have made a difference to what we thought of his work as President? Should it?

Did it matter that Graham Kennedy was gay? Surely all he owed us was a brilliant performance every weeknight? And did he not deliver that in abundance?

Did it matter that Churchill could be a belligerent drunk bully at times?

My point is this – there are some things the public don’t have the right to know. Nor need to.

Is it a good thing that some of the secret information Julian Assange released to the world is out there? Probably. Does all of it deserve to be public? Probably not. But who decides about this? If I were to approve secret documents to be released it may not correlate with what you want made public, or the next person. So, don’t we vote into power political parties to make those judgment calls? And if we don’t like their decisions isn’t it our right, nay our duty, to vote them out?

One has to question the responsibility of releasing secret documents about Afghanistan. Why? Because we are, like it or not, involved in a war. A long and bloody war that has taken the lives of many and still it goes on. Do I want the US and Allied Forces (including us) to win this war? Well, if the alternative is the Taliban, you bet your arse.

One could not have had a more liberal President than Franklin D. Roosevelt. The new deal guy. A man who clearly cared about the people. He was reluctant to enter a war but when Pearl Harbour was bombed he didn’t have much of a choice. Yet how would President Roosevelt have responded to someone releasing his secret documents and information to the world (and his enemies) during wartime? I have no doubt he would’ve had the culprit charged with treason and made to pay the penalty for such. Thankfully it didn’t happen and the outcome of the war was not altered.

But to give blanket approval to Julian Assange’s actions is to open a can of worms that may never be closed again.

I was living in Los Angeles during 9/11 and saw the subsequent televised war in Afghanistan. On CNN one day I watched one of Geraldo Rivera’s reports from the war zone. During it he actually drew a diagram in the sand and pointed out where the US forces were secretly based and went on to expound what their plan of attack was. He obviously didn’t think Osama Bin Ladin watched CNN. Not one of Geraldo’s shining moments. I’m not sure how many of his countrymen he put at risk. But even one was too many.

Let me remind us all we are involved in a war. Whether you agree with that war or not, is another matter. But to put our young men and women’s lives at risk is an act of astounding stupidity. And not my kind of hero.

 
By Frank Howson (c)2012