Drug War Prisoners


Richard Rorty is Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University, author of half a dozen important books, and practically Dean of what might be called the School of Pragmatist Philosophy. His is reckoned to be the most articulate voice expounding the view pragmatist philosophers advance to make sense of the issues an individual in a democratic society faces.

Richard - if you'll allow me - I'd like to call your attention to a problem. I want to ask how you see the relation between pragmatism and the War on Drugs, whether the philosophy "we pragmatists" espouse is not a little too close for comfort to the outlook of officials who run the War on Drugs.

Let me sum up from my reading of your "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and the volumes of your collected papers what you have told me about the philosophy of pragmatism. It is a New World response to some of the no longer tenable beliefs that formed the Old World ideal of the Enlightenment. Besides the belief, which you repudiate, that the mind or consciousness is a "mirror" which shows a picture of reality and gives an individual the right to claim that this or that depiction of reality is true, other beliefs which you abhor include belief in the existence of what used to be called human nature and, of chief concern here, natural justice. The old idea, in your book no longer relevant, was that human beings are connected by a common thread called human nature, and that such things as natural ("inalienable") rights and an innate sense of justice were part of a heritage in which all men - read "all women and men" - share, at least potentially. Your pragmatism pooh-poohs the existence of absolutes like human nature, or an innate sense of justice, or any construct that suggests the possibility of a foundation of human knowledge, or principles on which an understanding of human nature, to be valid, must be grounded.

I wonder if it's reasonable to question whether the drive to sweep aside foundations and absolutes has taken the philosophy of pragmatism too far. Treating such ideas as a common human nature and a universal sense of justice as deluded, pragmatism may have led its followers into the trap of condoning and even colluding with policies that so far depart from standards of decency and respect for the human condition as to veer in a direction opposed to everything we think of as democracy. If it is fair to call Drug War policy extreme and the mentality of those who practice it extremist, that is an outlook I do not think a philosopher of your stature would want to consciously be part of.

The question is, is there no limit to what our government sees fit to do in its insistence on stamping out drug use in America, no extreme it will stop short of? Your representative in Congress, back when you taught at the University of Virginia, voted to condemn children as young as 13 to trial in adult court for offenses involving drug use and incarceration in adult prison if convicted. I can't help thinking that pragmatism, which repudiates an innate sense of justice, helped the passage of such legislation along, or at least offered no resistance to it. I wonder if it is not time for pragmatism to drop some of its assumptions - they are only assumptions, after all - and for a pragmatist philosopher to come out four-square against the Drug War as an example of the extreme to which a policy not held in check by abstract limits may plunge. A move to repudiate Drug War tenets by a teacher such as you would exert a wholesome influence on the academic community and - if I may say so - redeem the philosophy you advertise.

You have taught that the job of a pragmatist is both to create an authentic self, not tied to arbitrary constructs such as a common human nature, and to express solidarity with a human community. You offer the advice that we (1) tolerate differences between individuals and differences between communities, (2) cultivate compassion, or as you put it "avoid cruelty," and (3) be reasonable with others, not force them to think exactly as we do.

On this reckoning, how should we score the War on Drugs? Not highly, I suggest.
Our government conducts its War on Drugs in utter disregard of differences between Americans. It stamps all drug use as bad, while Americans engage in drug use for a variety of reasons, some good, some bad, and some indifferent. Search more widely than in academic libraries, and you will find "cruelty" in the pursuit of Drug War policy enough to make your hair stand on end. You will admit, our government has no interest in heeding the views of its citizens on Drug War policy. How does a pragmatist philosopher deal with this discrepancy between the advice you give and actual fact?

Here's a related question. With which community do you urge readers to express solidarity? There are many communities in our pluralist society. Richard, I am sure there is someone in your family, or a friend's family, or someone who was once a student, who is in prison today after a conviction connected with drugs - an ambiguous term, this "drugs," by the way, don't you agree? I say this with confidence, since I doubt there is a family in America unscathed by the storm that has already swept a half-million Americans into prison. The person I have in mind is by the standards of your community at Stanford, or of the wider community of teachers and students, a decent person. The community of which this individual was once a member includes some who might label failure to protest her imprisonment complacency.

This is not to charge you with complacency. I am sure - the genial photo on the cover of your books says otherwise - you deplore the injustice this friend or student of yours now grapples with, only you do not know how to express your revulsion. Please listen. It would be heartening for America's Drug War prisoners to learn that you express solidarity with their community. Is it too much to ask that you encourage tolerance for the diverse views on drug use in America, speak out against the cruelty of Drug War policy, stand for the use of reason and not force in the politics of drug use - and from there go further? Will you call for the repeal of laws that condemn Americans who use drugs to prison, and for the release of the half-million Americans now imprisoned for drug offenses? Will you please affirm that justice counts, and that a society careless with justice is not a society worth living in? Will your next book hit America with a call to end the War on Drugs? That would really get the halls of academia rocking!

With best wishes to you and colleagues at Stanford, and in grateful anticipation of a reply it would be a privilege to publish here,

The Committee on Unjust Sentencing, Summer 2001





About COUSColumns SectionContact COUSDocuments SectionDrug War Talk SectionLegalizationLettersLight SideLinksMediaProjectsResearch