Change of minds: our drug ‘habit’ besieged from two sides at once

Read the papers, watch the news, and you witness a monumental change in the way we deal with psychoactive food stuffs.

This change manifests itself in two different ways.

On the one hand, the call for the legalization of cannabis is getting louder and louder. It forms part of a worldwide campaign to turn the ‘war on drugs’ into more effective means of breaking the power of drug barons and preventing and alleviating addiction, which also asks governments to consider the regulation of other types of recreational drug. This call is greatly aided by scientific studies that sort out the beneficial effects of drug use from the harmful effects, the more dangerous substances from the less dangerous, and the more sensible ways of consuming them from the more stupid ways. This is only possible because doing this kind of study in the first place is slowly gaining acceptance. In Britain for example, to publicly discuss consumption of hash has until recently been taboo. A show on Channel 4, based on research by Val Curran of UCL, shows this no longer to be the case now. (Coincidentally or not, at the time I visited their website a frozen-vegetable producer was advertising on it with the slogan ‘Stir your senses’.) In other countries, this process of acceptance has been going on for longer. In Uruguay, where both at-home and state-controlled production are now legal, it has even taken some definitive steps.

Interestingly, the same inquiring spirit has had quite the opposite effect on attitudes towards alcohol and nicotine, and to some extent even on caffeine. We are starting to get away from some of the deeply ingrained views on substances that made particularly alcohol a commonly accepted drug –  in many settings even an almost obligatory drug. Still, it firmly belongs in the category of ‘hard drugs’, in the sense that it induces physical dependence. The same applies to tobacco. This knowledge has been available for a long time (it is what I learnt at school), but state policies have only started to act on it more consistently over the past few years. In the Netherlands for instance, buying alcohol and drinking it in public have first been made illegal under age 16, and now up to age 18. Even though criminalisation is not necessarily the best remedy against the risks substances pose (this is the whole point of the cannabis story), at least these new policies give out a clear message that to drink and to smoke is no longer the norm, let alone a rule.

Our consumption habits are shifting. What we drink and smoke and sniff as a matter of course, is being challenged in the same way as the things we are not supposed to use. A knowledge that many people already possessed from experience, is now being formalized and improved by researchers. This article in the Lancet neatly summarizes current professional opinion about a range of substances and their harmfulness to both individuals and society. It shows how uninformed the legislation in most countries has been up till now. But, and this is the second important step, these researchers’ messages are now being listened to by politicians. Perhaps the generation of young Europeans that began (re)discovering certain drugs in the 1960s – drugs such as LSD and hash which have since been banned in most countries – are by now in a position to reassess this ban: as scientists, as intellectuals, as legislators. I am therefore optimistic (an unfashionable thing to be among historians) that this growing formal knowledge about the actual dangers of specific drugs will, during the coming years, continue to help reform law.

On a lighter note, this supermarket chain still ignores the dangers of two traditionally accepted drugs, in particular when combined:


If drinking gives you a headache, this may be the most effective way of selling painkillers in a supermarket.


Photos taken recently in British retail chain.

A real traveller?

Ever since the eighteenth century or thereabouts, travellers have carried an attitude commonly called ‘anti-tourism’.

Writers characterise others as Tourists: they are lazy, superficial, conventional. Tourists go on package tours; Tourists do not speak the local language; and all Tourists really want is a snapshot of themselves with the Great, Berlin or Hadrian’s Wall, which are as interchangeable to Tourists as the motel beds they sleep in.

It is not always acknowledged that this Tourist is a construction by these writers, an image, a personage. In real life, holiday travellers’ experiences are a great deal more complex.

Still, the image is an attractive one. It allows us to style ourselves different travellers: Real Travellers.

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from Neue Zürcher Zeitung article).

Charles Baudelaire, photographed by Etienne Carjat, 1863 (from an article in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung).

Charles Baudelaire is one of those writers who shaped our image of the Real Traveller. This is from his poem ‘Le voyage':

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

In the translation by Geoffrey Wagner:

But the true travelers are they who depart
For departing’s sake; with hearts light as balloons,
They never swerve from their destinies,
Saying continuously, without knowing why: “Let us go on!”

Many of us will know the feeling this fragment evokes. The lightness it brings to leave one place, full of muddy memories and a thousand duties, and exchange it for another, fresh one. It’s a splendid feeling.

But Baudelaire does something besides describing this feeling: he sets those who feel it (‘vrais voyageurs’) apart from the rest. They are the wanderers, the wayfarers, for whom the journey is more important than the destination. Apart from the fact that this is a poetic distinction that does not exist in real life – often, the destination and the journey are both important, and the same people who have happy, ‘balloony’ feelings can also experience homesickness and anxiety – Baudelaire also chooses to set these people above the rest: those who are ‘fated’ to roam are more properly travellers than those who are actually going some place.

This tallies nicely with the rest of Baudelaire’s oeuvre, in which the protagonists are never able to find their place in the world, never satisfied, never at peace with their environment. Baudelaire himself, too, does not seem to have been very able to go somewhere and stay away for long.

It is flattering for Baudelaire as well as for ourselves to think of ourselves as the Real Travellers, especially when the activity mostly consists of dreaming of other places from the comfort of our own room, with little or no contact with the actual people and cultures we dream about.

But should we praise ourselves for our restlessness? To arrive is also an art. It is a fine romantic notion never to settle, but to depart on journeys, real or literary, has never been a particularly difficult task for the rich and male.

The hard part is staying in the new place: making do and adjusting one’s expectations and prejudices. It seems that Baudelaire did not find this pursuit worth much effort. But however wonderful some of the lines he wrote, we should not let ourselves be swept away by the authority exerted by romantic poetry. Perhaps, those who go somewhere and make an effort, however imperfect, to adapt to the new place – the Nigerian trader in Guangzhou, the Sudanese refugee in Amsterdam, the Mexican housekeeper in Los Angeles – perhaps they are the real travellers.

The standard work on anti-tourism is James Buzard, The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to Culture, 1800-1918 (Oxford, 1993). Geoffrey Wagner’s translations appeared in Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire (New York, 1974). My biographical impressions were largely shaped by the chapter on Baudelaire in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel and Francis Scarfe’s introduction to his selected verse.

The perfect gift for…

Spring-time is here again (on the Northern Hemisphere). All over the world, countries get ready to celebrate Mother’s Day.

In Britain, a large household retailer has found a striking way of using this day to remind mothers of their duties.

shop window of large chain of household goods, 12 March 2015

Shop window of British chain of household shops, 12 March 2015.

It’s not altogether clear here who needs to get set: children, by buying a gift? Or mothers, by making everyone look their best on this festive Sunday?

Either way, we all know a happy mother is a mother dallying around the home. And her children are urged, by this shop, to help her remember in case she forgets.

Or should we assume that British mums are still pounding, rinsing and mangling their beloved’s blouses and bloomers by hand? In that case, they will be truly delighted with this gift, as it will open the way to an ocean of leisure. No better present imaginable.

If you are a particularly dirty child or spouse, you can even buy her three. Or give one to each mistress.

With thanks to my mother.

Ironing board will soon be obsolete

8 March is International Women’s Day. A day to think about the freedoms women and men have. And about the question: if these freedoms are unequal, how come? If even relatively rich, well-educated women are less happy in life than men, how come?

Photo of a Coleman's gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

Photo of a Coleman’s gas-heated pressing iron form the 1930s, by Sobebunny, 2010.

A small contribution to an answer and a solution appears in today’s issue of Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, under the somewhat fanciful title ‘No More Dusting, Ironing or Hoovering’.

Through the Looking-Glass

Sometimes, taking a step back from what we do…



… or looking at it from the other side…


shop in the city attracting customers from a looking-glass world

City centre shop attracting customers from looking-glass world (thanks to JHMS for spotting first)

… might help us see things more clearly.

It’s what history does for us.

Huizinga gets angry

Many feel we are living in times of crisis, and our civilisation is under threat. (Whose civilisation, by the way?) As is usual with these things, we are not the first people to have this feeling. Many – writers, priests, scholars, politicians – have voiced the same idea, in many different centuries.

The great historian Johan Huizinga was one of them. Even though he understood that the sense of a downfall was nothing new, he nevertheless thought things were fundamentally different in his day. In 1935, he published his book In the Shadow of Tomorrow (originally In de schaduwen van morgen. Een diagnose van het geestelijk lijden van onze tijd, but soon translated into English and many other languages). In it, he complained that

We are living in a possessed world. […]

almost everything which once seemed certain and sacred, has become unsteady: truth and humaneness, reason and right. […]

since recently, a mood of impending doom and the festering decay of civilisation has become general.

Johan Huizinga (unknown photographer), Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

Johan Huizinga (unknown photographer), Fotocollectie Rijksvoorlichtingsdienst

Clearly, historians are not immune to short-sightedness. Nor do they always know how to separate the important from the less important. One thing Huizinga was bothered by, was aesthetic innovation. Amongst many other things (dadaism!), he disliked cinema and the radio: for him, they could never be art but merely ‘a cheap mass product’, ‘trivial’, ‘fake’, ‘external’. Those who enjoyed them were the ‘passive’ consumers of the ‘shadow’ of something real.

drawing by Pepe Robles, CC BY-SA 4.0)

drawing by Pepe Robles, CC BY-SA 4.0

We have the benefit of hindsight of course, and for the same reason we can tell that it’s not all naivety we find in his book. For instance, Huizinga had a sharp eye for fashionable cliches. Just like about ten years ago, everything suddenly had to be ‘sustainable’ or green, in Huizinga’s day it was all about ‘life’, ‘blood’, ‘dynamic’, and, soon, he predicted, the word would be ‘existential’…

This critique by Huizinga, which in the first instance just uncovers a laughable habit, becomes more serious as he turns it into a political critique.

In the 1930s, European political discourse was suffused with the idea ‘don’t think: act’. Even if politics had never been particularly friendly anyway, strive and conquest had now become a sanctioned goal, bare and unexcused, beyond all judgement of good and evil. It was no longer considered the right thing to do, according to Huizinga, to fight against evil: it was now fine to fight against anything and anyone who was different from you – less powerful. War had become the normal state of being.

This ideology justified any act of violence, and announced the collapse of the fragile international peace that had reigned in Europe, at least, since the First World War, and the impending wolfing down of all societies by one military superpower. Obviously, Huizinga was thinking in the first place of the German state.

But Huizinga also turned to his fellow academics and researchers. In his book, he launches a sharp attack at those biological anthropologists who espoused racial theories. As he writes,

[This era] has become susceptible to a degree of nonsense, to which it had been immune for a long time.

Although clearly untenable, Huizinga explains, because these scientists assumed people to be completely determined by their birth and failed to take into account the influence of culture, racial theories nevertheless had an enormous popular appeal to Huizinga’s contemporaries, as he notices with disdain.

Jews and Germans are [both] exceptionally gifted in philosophy and in music […] This must be deemed to point to the strongly similar nature of the semitic and the germanic races. And so on, according to taste. The example is ridiculous, but not any sillier than the conclusions which are nowadays commonplace in wide circles of educated people.

To most of us nowadays all of this looks pretty obvious, but in the 1930s, reasoned racism was the order of the day (practical racism still is, of course). And, though even Huizinga did not completely escape racial thinking in his work, the following probably constituted the most important contribution he wanted to make with this book.

For he writes that even if someone ‘instinctively’ feels that certain people are different or less than they, it is their duty as ‘civilised human being’ to suppress this ‘animal-like’ thought. So quite the opposite from nurturing it with science and scholarship. The cultural crisis of the 1930s had to be averted by controlling these less-benign aspects of our nature. This was what ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ was all about: control. And Huizinga certainly accepted the consequences of his ideas, by clearly voicing his antifascist opinion in publications and university politics.

For Huizinga, going to the movies, racist science, and a score of other things that were completely different again, such as the supposed collapse of sexual morality, were all symptoms of the same cultural crisis. Perhaps we should be a little more discerning than Huizinga was in this matter, but equally brave.

Quotes are from pp. 1-2, 48-9, 57-9 and 68-79 of the Dutch edition (1963 reprint). Translations are mine.

Ability History Month

Today ended Disability History Month – a UK event, but which embraces worldwide International Day of People with Disabilities.

This month is, amongst other things, about how societies in the past turned physical impairments into disabilities: those with physical impairments encountered social and material obstacles which kept them (‘disabled them’) from having the wide range of options in occupation, lifestyle, etc. that people without (substantial) impairments enjoyed.

Yet history also offers a wealth of examples of people turning these disabilities, or their impairments, into abilities.

Portrait of John Kitto  (1804-1854) from John Eadie's biography (Edinburgh&London, 1858).

Portrait of John Kitto (1804-1854) from John Eadie’s biography (Edinburgh and London, 1858).

In early-nineteenth-century England lived a man called John Kitto. A fall from a roof in his early teen years took away his hearing. Rather than becoming part of a sign-language community, he stuck to English. He did this by expanding his reading and writing activity, now that hearing had become impossible and speaking more difficult. After all, reading and writing in English were ways of communicating he was already familiar with and, as historian Esme Cleall found, John Kitto himself in fact stigmatised sign language.

Still, having been brought up in a poor family of manual workers, his illness and impairment seem to have given Kitto cause to read and write more, as well as offering some time and legitimacy to study (although this summary perhaps gives too rosy a picture of his life at that stage. Grim economic necessity soon began to play its part as well).

Kitto became a Biblical scholar and educator and travelled to the Middle East for his work. All this was highly unusual for people from his socio-economic background. You can read all about John Kitto in Esme Cleall‘s (upcoming) work.

Later on, famous Dutch historian Jan Romein would seize a similar opportunity when he fell ill at age twelve, we read in I.Schöffer’s biographical sketch. It enabled Romein to read a lot and even write the first of many books.

As a final historical example, in Yeats’s collection of folk tales and local Irish history we find the story of ‘the last gleeman’. Michael Moran lived in the early part of the nineteenth century, ‘being alike poet, jester, and newsman of the people.’ He was the most popular singer of religious tales and sassy poems of his day and place. But how did he achieve this position of ‘rector of all the ballad-mongers’? This is what Yeats heard tell of him, several decades after Moran’s death:

A fortnight after birth he went stone blind from illness, and became thereby a blessing to his parents, who were soon able to send him to rhyme and beg at street corners and at the bridges over the Liffey.

[Perhaps it needs mentioning here that the advantage Moran’s parents’ took of his impairment, although it would be rightly rebuked by many nowadays, may have saved the boy from possibly much harsher types of work that poor children were routinely applied to then.]

They may well have wished that their quiver were full of such as he, for, free from the interruption of sight, his mind became a perfect echoing chamber, where every movement of the day and every change of public passion whispered itself into rhyme or quaint saying.

It speaks to these people’s merit that they worked around the pain and anger no doubt caused by their illnesses, impairments and disabilities, and lived their lives. It is a testimony of their creativity that they applied these very obstacles in doing so.

Luckily, such examples are not confined to history. Much more recently, Fem Korsten wrote an article on the apparently more flippant topic of the love for high-heeled shoes. Below the surface of this theme, however, she transforms physical restriction into physical freedom – not-being-able-to-walk into being-able-to-dress-how-you-like – and, for a change, shows you how to use fashion to love your body. I suggest you go and read it. Regardless of Month or Day.