Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for May, 2008

Tune in, turn on, regulate everything

Posted by metaphorical on 11 May 2008

Lysergic acid diethylamide has a bunch of anniversaries this year, one of them the sad passing of its inventor, Dr Albert Hofmann, on April 29th, at age 102.

On a more upbeat note, April 19th was the 65th anniversary of Hofmann’s first acid trip. While most of us grew up with LSD an illegal drug, it wasn’t always so. Indeed, Hofmann and his employer, Sandoz, started with high hopes. The compound was discovered while trying to come up with a respiratory stimulant. That didn’t work out, but its hallucinatory properties led psychiatrists to think it might be a treatment for schizophrenia, or at least, a way to understand that condition and other psychoses.

This year also marks the 60th anniversary of the drug’s availability in the United States. According to Martin Lee, author of the book Acid Dreams, LSD was “used as an aid for psychotherapy, actually, fairly widely.”

“During a 15 year period beginning in 1950, research on LSD and other hallucinogens generated over 1,000 scientific papers, several dozen books, and 6 international conferences, and LSD was prescribed as treatment to over 40,000 patients,” according to Coolnurse.com. Eventually, it became clear that LSD had no controllable therapeutic effects. That’s not the same as saying it’s worthless, which itself would be far from justifying laws that make it impossible to obtain.

On the 50th anniversary of the first acid trip, Hofmann said,

“You, my dear friends, and millions all over the world who now commemorate the 50th birthday of ergot’s child, we all testify gratefully that we got valuable help on the way to what Aldous Huxley said is the end and the ultimate purpose of human life–enlightenment, beatific vision, love.”

Sadly, the default position in the United States and Canada seems to be one of making substances invented in a drug lab illegal. LSD is an unfortunate victiim of that; being a path to enlightenment for some people just doesn’t matter to Congress or the FDA.

Why is this important? Maybe drugs should be illegal by default, but if we grant that, we ought to be very careful what we classify as drugs.

Up in Canada, they’re on the verge of reclassifying a bunch of hitherto legal herbs and other concoctions. According to a CBC report,

many natural health products that have been sold in Canada for decades unavailable for purchase and penalizing parents who give herbs or supplements to their children.

The U.S. health food market went through something similar. Beginning with the environmental movement of the late 1960s, and over the course of 30 years, a thriving organic food industry grew. There were no federal regulations concerning organic food, but some states, notably California, had their own. California’s were tough, and accorded with the understandings of organic farmers and health food consumers. Even foods produced in other states often had packaging asserting that it was certified organic in accord with the California regulations.

In 1998 the USDA finally issued regulations that over the course of about four years led to a watered-down definition of “organic.” Worse, the 1998 law made it illegal for the states to have any other definition of the term.

“I want to make it clear that these rules are not about creating a category of agriculture that is safer than any other. No distinctions should be made between organically and non-organically produced products in terms of quality, appearance, or safety.” — then-Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, 1998

Today, there are no useful terms to guide consumers who care about the healthfulness of their food, the conditions of its growth, or the practices used to raise food animals. “Organic,” “natural,” and “free-range” are among the terms that no longer have any useful meaning.

Generally speaking, drugs are legal only when expressedly so, and generally regulated when legal. Food is illegal only when expressedly so, and generally isn’t regulated when legal. When looked at that way, it’s pretty clear what happens when the definition of “drug” is opened up to include more and more foods.

When the Canadian government reaches into the language and redefines words like “drugs” and “natural health product” it leaves its manufacturers unable to create the products that citizens want, and it makes it impossible for citizens to know what they’re getting when they buy products they hope will be healthful.

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Destroying the village to save it

Posted by metaphorical on 11 May 2008

Today’s Orwellian phrase is “coercive humanitarian intervention.”

The military regime that runs Burma initially signaled it would accept outside relief, but has imposed so many conditions on those who would actually deliver it that barely a trickle has made it through. Aid workers have been held at airports. U.N. food shipments have been seized. U.S. naval ships packed with food and medicine idle in the Gulf of Thailand, waiting for an all-clear that may never come.

Retired General William Nash of the Council on Foreign Relations says the U.S. should first pressure China to use its influence over the junta to get them to open up and then supply support to the Thai and Indonesian militaries to carry out relief missions. “We can pay for it — we can provide repair parts to the Indonesians so they can get their Air Force up. We can lend the them two C-130s and let them paint the Indonesian flag on them,” Nash says. “We have to get the stuff to people who can deliver it and who the Burmese government will accept, even if takes an extra day or two and even if it’s not as efficient as the good old U.S. military.”

Time magazine is reporting that the difficulties in getting the Burmese government to accept relief aid has led some governments and some relief organizations to consider an extreme alternative: a “coercive humanitarian intervention.”

That’s why it’s time to consider a more serious option: invading Burma. Some observers, including former USAID director Andrew Natsios, have called on the U.S. to unilaterally begin air drops to the Burmese people regardless of what the junta says. The Bush Administration has so far rejected the idea — “I can’t imagine us going in without the permission of the Myanmar government,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Thursday — but it’s not without precedent: as Natsios pointed out to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. has facilitated the delivery of humanitarian aid without the host government’s consent in places like Bosnia and Sudan. “

It calls to mind that other 21st century coercive humanitarian intervention, the U.S. invasion of Iraq. If I had to guess the reason the American public has turned against the war it’s that, rightly or wrongly, it ran out of patience with people it sees as unwilling to help themselves, or even let anyone else help them. The Iraqi people had only to accept American aid, this sentiment goes, and if they won’t, to hell with them. Americans will say the same thing about Burma.

It’s hard not agree. “Coercive humanitarian intervention” sounds a little too much like what went wrong in Vietnam, the war in which, writ large, it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

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