Sunday, May 8, 2011

Opium Feels Good

In high school, we had a semi-famous writer come and lecture us about drugs. Looking back I can imagine he was probably an ok guy, who'd been persuaded to get into the motivational/anti-drug business that, in an early nineties post-Nancy-Reagan haze, was probably a better career move than, oh, being a semi-famous writer. At one point during his speech, he tried to be "interactive" by pulling kids from the audience and asking them questions. I remember that he pulled out this kid named Troy, and everyone started to snicker. Troy wore a worn black leather jacket over Tesla t-shirts (I know), so obviously, I guess the thinking went, by both the semi-famous writer and the snickering kids, he knew something about drugs. He asked him why people did drugs. Troy said, "because of the way it feels?" and everyone snickered some more before the semi-famous writer said, no, no, clearly it was all about trying to fit in, and Troy looked embarrassed and sat down. On my way out of the assembly I heard one kid say to another, "God that was awful. I need a drink."

I think about Troy sometimes when you hear some smart-ass atheist talk about "the opiate of the masses." Jonathan Kozol had a good reply when asked about this in the context of a South Bronx church and he said "here, opium is the opiate of the masses." But the point is, each in their own way, opium and religion can make us feel good. The fact that this feeling is temporary or purchased at some expense does not make this feeling "false." In The Corner David Simon talks about the bargain we've made with people our system has rendered disposable. The puny welfare checks people bitch about are a very small bribe to keep the real demands at bay, and we should pay them gladly. You can say you want to take drugs away from people, but you have to give them something in return. Same thing with religion, which the political atheists don't really understand. They say, condescendingly, that they understand religion gives some people meaning and hope, but the implication is always that needing this is a sign of underdevelopment, and that if those people would just wise up they wouldn't need it: as if anyone among us lives without taking pleasure from something that could be called an illusion.

All of this came to mind as I recently finished watching the first season of Simon's current show, Treme (highbrow television being of course one socially acceptable way to get pleasure from an illusion.) Like The Wire, it's the portrait of a city, in this case New Orleans. The feel is so different, though. Instead of drug dealers, cops, politicians and teachers, we have musicians, a bar owner, a chef, a dj. All the systematic injustices are there - and are heightened even further by the storm - but there's so much more joy. How often did we see folks in the Wire take solace or pleasure in each other? If we did, it was usually a sign something bad was around the corner. Here, the musical scenes, of the manic Davis riffing on what he'd play if he didn't have to stick to the station's playlist, the scenes of Janette running around her kitchen and managing to pull something beautiful out of the chaos are all such joys to watch, not to mention Clarke Peters (Lester from the wire) as the Mardi Gras Indian Albert, stitching his costume and getting his crew back together. (If only Lester had had a whole crew of miniature makers to run with!) The lawyer and the academic are naturally partial exceptions, but even they get in on the fun at times.

At one point a young musician whose success has taken him to New York wonders if all the effort being put in to the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras is worth it, if it would be better put into rebuilding the city. It's an interesting question: if you looked at the usual statistics (and taking into account how how Katrina and the post-Katrina exile of the city's poor) you'd look at New Orleans like people look at Baltimore, as as series of outrages and problems, and of course Simon is the last person who'd deny this. But there's a lot in how people get by and resist and make beauty in their lives that can't be measured. It's a tricky point, one that can easily sound sentimental. A lot of my lefty friends probably think that talking about resistance through culture or the resistance of everyday life is some kind of weak-kneed cultural studies wishful thinking best left back in the eighties. And I agree that it's important not to confuse this with something systematic: Albert triumphs in getting his tribe together but can't make any progress with his protest about public housing, because it's mostly just him. Still, how we carry ourselves, reflect ourselves back to ourselves, celebrate and mourn really matters. In the end any guard against inevitable suffering and loss can be thought of as a kind of opium, but there's still a big difference in the fact of being soothed, and the ways in which we do it.

ETA: Based on the first three episodes of season 2, it's going in a very different direction which puts what I'm saying here in a very different light. More soon.


  1. This is good. But, or anyway, here's what Marx actually said:

    "Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.

    "Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

    "The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

    "Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower. The criticism of religion disillusions man, so that he will think, act, and fashion his reality like a man who has discarded his illusions and regained his senses, so that he will move around himself as his own true Sun."

  2. Right: obviously I agree with the old man and was using the way people casually use that phrase to make a point. I do have to say though that I'm not sure that anyone who knows she/he is going to die can really "give up a condition that requires illusion": mortality might be that condition. If we had a more humane society that met more of our needs, religion might lose a lot of its functions, including the more destructive ones, but I don't know if it would lose this one.

    The much more important point: you need to watch this show!

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