SEPTEMBER 15, 2013:
All the uproar--perfectly justified, by the way--about the NSA spying domestically on our emails, phone calls, and anything else they can get their hands on makes me think that for those of us who want to keep our private lives private, it might behoove us to go back to writing letters and sending them via surface mail. Quaint and slow, to be sure, but I still get an occasional letter, usually from a reader who doesn't know how to find my email address, and it's still a thrill, small but sure. A letter in the mail is always more compelling somehow than an email. And what are the scholars of the future, trying to write the biographies of famous writers, artists, politicians, etc. going to do about the fact that most famous people don't write letters any more? Ninety percent of what Thomas Jefferson wrote was correspondence: 22,000 + letters, still being edited. I have seventeen volumes of them, and find them endlessly interesting. What a loss if he had had email.
But I digress, even before I've started. This blog is not about letters, it's about the phone tap. I used to write something called the Ethics Column for ESQUIRE magazine, had it for a year and a half in the 1980s, and it got a lot of attention (and a lot of mail). In one of my last columns I wrote about drug use, the history of it in this country, its spread through the culture, and the many different kinds of drugs we've come to rely on, from Afrin Nasal Spray to cocaine, marijuana to tobacco, and most of all, alcohol. What would we do without them? It's an open question, never going to be answered because we're never going to be without them. But since we are so dependent on them as a society, why do we legalize some and not all? The biggest hypocrisy, without question, is alcohol, perfectly legal countrywide (except in certain dry counties in America's more primitive areas) yet a highly dangerous drug, the trigger for vast numbers of deadly traffic accidents, killings, beatings, the abuse of women and children, and so on. Who doesn't know someone whom alcohol hasn't nearly destroyed, or completely destroyed, one way or another? A drunk driver came within an ace of killing me a few years ago--totaled the car, missed hitting me straight on by six inches. Yet alcohol use remains legal, while marijuana use is still a Federal crime. Does this make sense? of course it doesn't. It's one of our many national hypocrisies. What I argued for in the column was for the legalization, regulation and taxation of the illicit drug market,which would eliminate at one stroke the power of the international drug cartels, the violence of the inner city drug trade, and the emergence of a new service industry for the treatment of addiction. It would also eliminate the DEA and its numerous abuses of the law. I had lots of facts and figures to back me up, and it was a good column.
Nor was I alone. A whole lot of people agreed with this position, including the stalwart conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., among others on the right, and people from the other side, too, liberals; I remember here in Sag Harbor a man running out of his furniture store to accost me on the street. Did I write that column about drugs in ESQUIRE? he wanted to know. Yes, I said, I did. He grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. Man, that was the best column ever, he said. He was an old hippie, reborn as a furniture importer for the carriage trade. I also got a lot of mail attacking me for betraying my position as an ethics columnist. For those people there could be no compromise.
Nor for the DEA, apparently. We first noticed the phone taps about two weeks after the column appeared. They came as clicks on the line, regular little clicks, hardly noticeable, and they were not selective; i.e., they cropped up on every call into or out of the house. I figured it out soon enough. The Drug Enforcement Administration, the organization with the most to lose if marijuana and other illegal drugs were legalized and regulated, was tapping our phone. They wanted to know if I was dealing, or if there was some other reason they could find to have me prosecuted, thereby blunting the force of my argument. I was not, of course, dealing. I was at the time an occasional user of marijuana, most of it given to us as gifts from friends, but had never used cocaine or any of its derivatives, opium or its derivatives, and my only excursion into psychedelics had been one time with LSD, which I took while doing research for my book on the mental health system because I had read that LSD could mimic a psychotic break, and I wanted to see what that was like. (I was much braver, or more foolhardy, in those days.) It didn't, for me, mimic a psychotic break. It mimicked spiritual enlightenment. I never felt the need to take it again.
So I was essentially clean, and we treated the phone tapping as a joke, telling all our friends when they called that the phone was tapped, don't reveal our sources, laughing at the idiots listening to us gossip about this and that while they hoped for a break in their case and the chance to drive up SWAT-team like and raid the house. But it went on for months and it was irritating to be subjected to it, SIMPLY FOR EXPRESSING AN OPINION. It came to an end shortly after I did the research for a profile on a U. S. Customs agent, the only one in the United States who dealt with art crime. That was for the late great magazine CONNOISSEUR. He called me one day and immediately said, is this line being tapped? I said I thought so, and explained to him why. Let me call you back on a secure line, he said, and did, and that was it for the phone taps. He knows a U. S. Customs agent? They finally got it. I was not dealing drugs; I was dealing ideas.
Dangerous ideas, like the right to privacy, the right to be left alone with our vices, the idea of reason in government. States are always going to engage in surveillance; the bigger the state the more of it there will be. To an extent I don't mind. We have cops who regulate our driving, and I'm definitely in favor of that; when our car was totaled the cops were there in three minutes and hauled this fool away to jail. His blood alcohol level was 0.23, three times over the limit. I think gun owners should have licenses the way drivers do, and be required to pass tests to get them, as drivers are. Including, maybe, psychological tests. Having nothing to hide, I'm not totally against NSA surveillance, but that, too, should be regulated, closely, with warrants and every other protection. You can't fly a plane without a license, and extensive training. Thank god for that. And you can't blow up a city at all, for any reason (unless you're the U. S. and at war), and I'm willing to give up a good deal of my own privacy to make sure that doesn't happen.
It's in the world of ideas that surveillance is scary, and doesn't belong; it's in the inability of the regulators to distinguish between ideas and behavior, ideas and action. In this respect they're simple-minded. They don't think they should be subject to criticism, or any kind of overview. The drug laws are bad laws, and it's time to remake this system. Slowly, very slowly, the marijuana laws at least are being revamped, and with luck thousands of people who broke no other law but the marijuana laws will be let out of prison. I, personally, don't like marijuana and never use it, but I know a great many people for whom it's their principal relaxant, and who are forced to take risks in order to have it. My drug of choice is vodka, which simplifies things. But at least with marijuana progress is being made. If only we could say this of so many other of the irrational and harmful things that go on in this country.