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The Painful Price of Numbness

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Posted on Jul 13, 2012
ssoosay (CC BY 2.0)

By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

So when you’re miserable here, you’re miserable twice: once because you actually lost your home/job/savings/spouse/girlish figure and all over again because it’s not supposed to be like that (and maybe thrice because our mainstream society doesn’t suggest any possibility of changing the circumstances that produced your misery or even how arbitrary those circumstances are). I suspect that all those drugs are particularly about numbing a deep American sense of failure or of smashed expectations.

Really, when you think of the rise of crack cocaine during the Reagan era, wasn’t it an exact corollary to the fall of African-American opportunity and the disintegration of the social safety net? The government produced failure and insecurity, and crack buffered the results (and proved a boon to a burgeoning prison-industrial complex). Likewise, the drug-taking that exploded in the 1960s helped undermine the radical movements of that era. Drugs aren’t a goad to action, but a deadening alternative to it. Maybe all those zombies everywhere in popular culture nowadays are trying to say something about that.

Here in the United States, there’s no room for sadness, but there are plenty of drugs for it, and now when people feel sad, even many doctors think they should take drugs. We undergo losses and ordeals and live in circumstances that would make any sane person sad, and then we say: the fault was yours and if you feel sad, you’re crazy or sick and should be medicated. Of course, now ever more Americans are addicted to prescription drugs, and there’s always the old anesthetic of choice, alcohol, but there is one difference: the economics of those substances are not causing mass decapitations in Mexico.

Roads to Destruction and the Palace of the Dead


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When I think about the drug wars and the drug culture here, I think about a young man I knew long ago. He was gay, from Texas, disconnected from his family, talented but not so good at finding a place in the world for that talent or for himself. He was also a fan of the beat novelist and intermittent junkie William Burroughs, and he believed that line about how “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”  Maybe it was fine when William Blake said it in the 1790s, since Blake wasn’t a crackhead. But my friend got from Burroughs—a man with family money and apparently an iron constitution—the idea that derangement of the senses was a great creative strategy. 

This was all part of our youth in a culture that constantly reinforced how cool drugs were, though back then another beat writer, the poet David Meltzer, told me methamphetamine was a form of demonic possession. The young man became possessed in this way and lost his mind. He became homeless and deranged, gone to someplace he couldn’t find his way back from, and I would see him walking our boulevards barefoot and filthy, ranting to himself.

Then I heard he had jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge.  He wasn’t yet 30; he was just a sweet boy. I could tell four or five more stories like his about people I knew who died young of drugs. The meth that helped him down his road of no return was probably a domestic product then, but now vast quantities of it are made in Mexico for us—15 tons of it were found earlier this year in Guadalajara, enough for 13 million doses, worth about $4 billion retail.

When I think about the drug wars, I also think about my visit to Santa Muerte (Saint Death) in Mexico City in 2007. A young friend with me there insisted on going.  It was perilous for outsiders like us even to travel through Tepito, the black-marketeers’ barrio, let alone go to the shrine where imposing, somber men were praying and lighting candles to the skeleton goddess who is the narcotraficantes’ patron saint. They worship death; they’re intimate with her; they tattoo her on their flesh, and there she was in person—in bones without flesh, surrounded by candles, by gifts, by cigarettes and gold, an Aztec goddess gone commercial.

My companion wanted to take pictures. I wanted to live and managed to convince him that thugs’ devotional moments were not for our cameras. When it came time to leave, the warm patroness of the shrine locked up the stand in which she sold votive candles and medallions, took each of us by an arm—as if nothing less than bodily contact with death’s caretaker would keep us safe—and walked us to the subway. We survived that little moment of direct contact with the drug war. So many others have not.

Mexico, I am sorry.  I want to see it all change, for your sake and ours. I want to call pain by name and numbness by name and fear by name. I want people to connect the dots from the junk in their brain to the bullet holes in others’ heads. I want people to find better strategies for responding to pain and sadness. I want them to rebel against those parts of their unhappiness that are political, not metaphysical, and not run in fear from the metaphysical parts either.

I want the narcotraficantes to repent and give their billions to the poor. I want the fear to end. A hundred years ago, your dictatorial president Porfiro Díaz supposedly remarked, “Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” which nowadays could be revised to, “Painful Mexico, so far from peace and so close to the numbness of the United States.”  

Yours sincerely,


Rebecca Solnit lived through the inner-city crack wars in the 1980s and tried most drugs a very long time ago. A TomDispatch regular, she is the author of thirteen books, including, most recently, Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas, which maps, among other things, the 99 murders in her city in 2008, most of them of poor young men caught up in the usual, and the lives of undocumented laborers in San Francisco.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch and join us on Facebook, and check out the latest TD book, Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare, 2001-2050.

Copyright 2012 Rebecca Solnit

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