The surprisingly delightful musings of a humble Virginian whose satiric paeons to a plausible utopia implicitly shame the cynical zeitgeist of our times, causing it to cry, as 'twere, 'Damn, what was I thinking?' or words to that effect.

July 2018

The Salem Witch Hunt Never Ended

As a grade school student, I always got a sort of smug cultural self-satisfaction whenever class discussion turned to the evils of the Salem witch hunt, or of witch hunts in general. Those ancient people were just so benighted after all! Humph! If only they had lived in America in the (then) 20th century and knew what enlightenment was. I bet you they'd have thought twice before taking up their knives and pitch forks and chasing down innocent women merely because they displayed a little eccentricity under the influence of native plants!

Forty years later, however, I have learned a galling truth, a truth that has knocked me off of my ethnocentric high horse and made me question the supposed enlightenment of the American way of life: namely, the fact that the witch hunt never ended.

True, we are no longer arresting people simply because they behave strangely, but we are still cracking down with Cotton Mather-like intensity on the use of native plants as a means of self-realization and potential cosmic awareness.

Our Puritan nation still believes in the devil, albeit with a lower case "d"; it's just that the devil now manifests itself as hallucinogenic plants. And if hallucinogens are the devil, it follows, metaphorically speaking, that anyone who possesses them must be in league with this devil and punished accordingly. And punish them we do, as America's record-high prison population clearly shows.

The truth is then, America never stopped performing witch hunts: it just relabeled the witches as "drug abusers" in order to ease its Puritan conscience about the ruination that such Draconian policies bring to the lives of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

But the Puritans were not content with merely stopping personal exploration of altered states. The fact-challenged zeitgeist effectively forced scientists to cease studying these demonic substances as well, when, in 1968, America placed them on the Schedule I list of prohibited substances, for the ostensible reason that they were addictive and had no therapeutic value (both of which claims, in connection with hallucinogenic mushrooms, were demonstrably false, even at the time that the legislation was pushed through).

Nor did scientists put up much of a fight against this coup in which public hysteria usurped the role of unbiased scientific research. Sure, scientists at the time were unhappy, but there has been no ground swell of revulsion over the precedent set in 1968, according to which public feeling, not scientific research, could determine public policy about drugs. If the uneducated masses feel that a drug is bad, that's good enough for science, apparently, notwithstanding the scientist's vaunted dedication to cold, dispassionate research on every other topic under the sun.

The result? The desperate needs of mental health patients are put on the back burner for a half-century as America struggles to get its Puritan mind around the fact that altered states are neither good nor bad, except as regards the specific context of such usage. At least our stateside Shakespeare fans should have already learned this fact from the pharmaceutical musings of Friar Laurence in Romeo & Juliet:

Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;

And vice sometimes by action dignified..

Thus we see that modern America hasn't lost its Puritan intolerance from colonial days, no matter how much we preen ourselves on the rapid advances in modern technology. Nor can this technology help us find sanity. True, it might come up with an app to help law enforcement detect signs of "mushroom use" in a drug suspect, but it's not going to come up with an app to ensure the independence of science from the muddled ideas of the mob or the freedom of the individual to seek their own salvation through the use of natural substances, no matter how loudly society claims the specious right to label parts of Mother Nature's bounty as "illegal."

Copyright 2017, Brian Quass (follow on Twitter)