James Ryer: Essay: Oct 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: I was born in the South, raised and educated there, and still choose to live there. From my beginnings and my early perception of the world as I knew it, my political perspective has continually evolved over time. In many respects, if you examine the current political diorama and compare it to the lead-up to the Civil War, you can see distinct similarities. The question then becomes: “What can Southerners, as citizens, do to help reset a unifying sense of democracy – or, dear brothers and sisters, are we, as a country, too broken to prevent a second uncivil war?”

On Addiction and Democracy

I came of age in the 1960s in the South.  Voted for the first time in 1968 and have consistently cast ballots in Federal, State and Local elections since then.  After serving in Vietnam, I came back with a healthy skepticism of the overreach of government power, especially during the  Nixon administration, but stayed engaged in mainstream politics.  After a thirty year career in State government, seeing up close and personal a great deal of the inner workings of government bureaucracy, I still had a healthy respect for the fundamental principles and inherent values of our democratic system of government.  Now, I have serious questions about where we are in our experiment with American democracy.

In this essay, I respectfully ask for your time, for you to simply reflect on my words and to choose to examine your own beliefs on the state of not just where we stand as a deeply divided country but to also research the facts, consider the recognized expert opinion, and to allow the evidence at hand to guide your thinking.  We may disagree, but we may also expand our understanding of each other’s core beliefs.  The critical aspect is that we use civil discourse to achieve a greater level of unity.

The questions that I am currently contemplating are those of the addiction to power (be it political, economic or to preserve racial inequality) and the persistent plague of drug addiction.  Both have my heart and my brain on fire.  

And, it’s not like I haven’t had a surplus of quality thinking time – given the insularity and the merciless reach of the pandemic’s grip on the country at large.  As of 1/1/21, approximately 350,000 Americans are dead as a result of Covid 19.  Deaths from drug overdoses were 70.2 thousand in 2017 and decreased slightly to 67.4 thousand in 2018 per NDA/CDC reporting (the most recent years available).  To be explicit, I believe the cumulative total of these numbers is less important than the loss of each individual soul regardless of the cause of their death.

The questions that most disturb me are:

  • The efficacy and effectiveness of programs that treat addiction versus incarceration and how government tends to respond to those two policy choices.
  • To what extent does political expediency and/or soulless profiteering tend to drive policy at all levels?
  • How the companies that developed and sold opioids on a massive scale did so without consequences for as long as they did?
  • Were the DEA, corporate leadership throughout the medical care industry, and Congress not arguably complicit during this crisis?
  • Who gets noticed and who is invisible – on our streets and in the corridors of power?
  • Whose eyes do you meet and whose gaze do you avoid?
  • Are Athenian democracy’s roots still flourishing in America?  If so, what are the values and actions we, as everyman or everywoman, must model that are essential to maintaining a viable demand for political accountability and equal justice?
  • Is there still a sustaining meaning of morality in our democracy?
  • Has color or age or sex ever been a legitimate reason for codified bias in our laws?  
  • Who now stands against the neglectful or abusive treatment of our our most vulnerable?
  • Is it not inherently corrosive to cynically challenge the founding guidelines of our democracy for personal, political, or power toppling gain?
  • Is good trouble enough to neutralize the decay and allow us to rebuild and strengthen the foundations of our democracy against those forces that seek power and privilege only for themselves?

The eventual but undeniable answer is that we – as in we the people – have to chose to actively defend our fragile but resilient democracy so that what defines and unites us as a nation will ultimately prevail.  This is a time of crisis.  While every individual may not be affected, the  existence of chaos undermines the ideals and institutions that protect us all.

Fusing the essence of morality and justice into the baser aspects of our government has been, even in critical times, problematic.  Leaders typically rise to the occasion in the moments when the caldron of chaos and dissension burns hottest.  The most recent examples are the lethal Covid-19 virus that threatens to render the fabric of our lives and the 1/6/21 breach of the inner sanctum of the U.S. Capitol by protesters.  But, as we well know, while leaders must necessarily have a vision and be able to mobilize us to action, while our President is expected to speak for and to the country, it is the resilient will of the individuals who respond to the call for action that propels us through the most difficult moments.  Even when they may be dying in the process.

Now, let me take you onto the hard streets and into the wealthiest provinces of privilege where drugs ravage another distinct aspect of our humanity.  

There are questions of concern here, too.  I have spoken to some of the drug related issues in my preceding comments, but there is more that needs to be said.  

These are a few of the words that come to mind as I reflect on the alarming rate of drug use in our nation and it’s impact on: our culture, the fabric of our society, our economy, and our sense of values or lack thereof that contribute to our nation’s drug dependency.

Invisibility 

Hopelessness

Despair 

Homelessness

Criminality

Family

Rehab & Relapse

Faith & Hope

Forgiveness & Compassion 

The systems that keep the addiction problem alive and profitable are many.  Some are legal.  Some plainly are not.  

  • Why are drugs allowed to be the dominant driver of the micro economy in many of our impoverished neighborhoods?  What are the answers to reversing that reality?
  • What aspects of our culture allow these systems to exist to the extent that they seem intractable?  I clearly recognize that drugs have been prevalent throughout time and exist in most cultures.  But, why does it exist to the magnitude that it does here in the United States?  What have we not recognized, what are we blind to, what is the way forward?
  • Is addiction a form of slavery – especially as it relates to incarceration for drug use?  If so, do we recognize that we, as a society, have some level of complicity and a responsibility to address how we perceive and respond to addiction?
  • What is the true price of addiction?  Setting everything else aside, at its essence, it is the lonely, almost overlooked deaths of those addicted souls and the tortured memories, the conflicted or unresolved feelings, and the deep sense of loss suffered by family members.  
  • Should the legality surrounding drug use be revisited in the halls of State and Federal government?
  • Drugs, in one sense, are like a pandemic.  They know no boundaries in who can fall under their unrelenting and potentially deathly grip, they don’t care about your social status, and they take lives with absolute impunity.  
  • What role can science and medical treatment programs effectively play?  What needs to be changed in their approach to addiction?
  • Is incarceration for drug use an effective deterrent?  What would be more effective?
  • Is our sense of morality misplaced or justified in our societal view of addiction.

I am inserting a link to a website that contains work posted on Flickr by photographer and freelance writer Chris Arnade who has covered addiction and poverty in America: 

https://www.flickr.com/photos/arnade/sets/72157627894114489/.

This link is to one of his projects called “Faces of Addiction.”  A link on this site will direct you back, if you wish, to the entire body of his work on Flickr.  If you go to the “Faces of Addiction” album, please also read his commentary about the person(s) in each photograph.  It’s honest, non-apologetic, and leaves the subject’s dignity firmly in place.

The faces in Andrade’s photo-documentation of addiction clearly reflect the addict’s humanity in a brutal but honest artistic expression.  His work forces us to look at addiction as a reflection of our own demons, our own failures, and, in a sacred way, our perceived triumphs.

Slavery – incarceration – race – drugs ….. all enigmas we too often pretend we cannot see and are reticent to seek solutions for when we are ultimately forced to recognize them – using cliches such as “that problem’s always been with us,” “you know they will never change how they live,” “you have to first be willing to fix yourself,” “we should abolish all government giveaway programs,” “all politicians are liars,“ the voting system is rigged,”and so on.  Too often, these type of beliefs are reflective of an unrecognized moral indifference or self-imposed biases that are designed to fit your own world view.  Are those traits addressable in a meaningful way?  If we as a country want to move forward, to move away from injustice and inequality, then the individuals who vote, who are actively involved in our politics, who are the sovereignty in our democracy, must become the power most responsible for directing and forging change.  The critical role is to either check or condone unrestrained power, and then become the agents for change in our democracy.  In stark terms, the choices made by each individual citizen becomes a clear binary choice between choosing democracy or bending toward autocracy or chaos.  Our experiment in democracy is on-going.  It is continuously being challenged by the forces of racism, indifference to even the basic needs of others, inequality in our foundational social protection programs, a national point of view that’s more insular rather than holistic and supportive of our allies.

Perhaps most concerning is a variant strain of a seditious virus which is rampant in the echo chamber of the dark web and appears to run only lightly checked in mainstream social media.

In the end, if I hear you say that you don’t see any correlation between drug addicts and the political process, at least not from the people you voted for, I will look you in the eye, lower my head slightly for a moment, then raise my eyes to your gaze and say in a quiet but clear voice, “Let’s talk. There is much for us to discuss.”

Given where we are today in America, it will require the active engagement of the country at large to reconcile its differences, to look objectively at how power can be used for healing, and especially how our democracy can be strengthened through unity.  Our prevailing strength will be ourselves.