A couple of readers have emailed about a pargagraph that appeared in a media diary, the Indpendent’s I think, saying words to the effect of ‘ooh er missus, isn’t it odd that an Observer journalist should condemn cocaine’ and asked what on earth the writer was talking about. I haven’t the faintest idea. It read to me like a typical media in-joke that makes the commerically fatal mistake of leaving the readers out in the cold. In response to my correspondents and for what it is worth, here’s a piece from the archives which explains what I think and why.
Monday 28th February 2005
Fair trade special – Drinking ethical coffee is fashionable. But so is using cocaine, which is supplied through decidedly unethical channels. Nick Cohen sniffs hypocrisy
It’s rare for a member of the Association of Chief Police Officers to raise a moral issue that disconcerts London’s vaguely leftish upper middle class. But Sir Ian Blair, the new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, has managed it. He suggested that he may one day send the drug squad into the Groucho Club to arrest cocaine-raddled members and implied that cocaine use was equivalent to buying oranges from apartheid South Africa or taking a holiday in Burma.
No reasonable person can doubt that the sooner Sir Ian leads a Swat team into Soho the better. Since Julie Burchill abandoned the Groucho for Brighton, the danger that the cops might haul away a writer whose work would be missed has passed. For the confessional journalists who whine about their boyfriends, the creatives who daringly put misspelt swear words on billboards and the oldest swingers in town from GQ magazine, a short,sharp spell in Brixton’s nonces’ block would finally give them a grown-up subject to write about.
More important than their loss to soceity is Sir Ian’s argument that “the price of cocaine is misery on the streets of London’s estates and blood on the roads to Colombia”. Cocaine has indeed spread wide and deep. The most recent figures from the British Crime Survey showed 624,000 people in England and Wales had admitted taking it within the previous year, and 275,000 had admitted taking it in the previous month. The real figures are probably higher. At £40 a gram and falling, it still is not cheap but it hardly fits Robin Williams’s old definition that “cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you make too much money” any longer. This is a drug for the many.
The consensus in London’s media village is that Sir Ian is fighting a lost cause. Dragging lawyers and accountants out of Islington dinner parties would be a waste of police time, they say, and then move on. But you can catch the unease in their voices- and that, I think, stems from how he hit on the contradictions of ethical consumerism.
To the individual, ethical consumerism is an assertion of autonomy. You’re not changing the world when you buy bananas from the Windward Islands or fair-trade coffee from Colombia, but you are refusing to accept its terms, as you have every right to do. If an individual refusal is to have a political effect, it must be a part of mass boycotts or mass purchases. And it is at this moment that ethical politics is in danger of slipping into fashion.
Go back to the Groucho Club and look at what can and can’t be done. You can guarantee that the customers would be appalled to find genetically modified vegetables on the menu. GM is taboo, though nobody can prove that a single consumer has suffered an untimely death – or even an upset stomach – after eating a GM dinner. US corporations can argue, with a great deal of hypocrisy and just a smidgen of justice, that GM’s potential to increase crop yields for the world’s growing population is being hindered by the faddism of the wealthy.
I think you can smoke in the Groucho, but you can’t at any Islington dinner party I’ve been to in the past decade. The social taboo against smoking is becoming absolute, in the middle classes at any rate. Tobacco kills smokers and those who passively inhale their smoke over many years. Heroin and cocaine kill directly through contaminated drugs, and indirectly through the support they give to the narco-dictatorship of the Burmese junta and the mafias that terrorise much of Latin America and, increasingly, the rich world’s slums. Yet it is social death to put a cigarette in your mouth, not to stuff cocaine up your nose.
Admirably, the fashion is for free-range meat. But while the beasts are free to roam, the prisons of Europe and North America are stuffed to the gunnels with drug mules from the Caribbean who are serving long sentences because they have been forced by poverty or ordinary human greed to become smugglers.
In short, mass consumer boycotts are all very well but they rather depend on the quality of the consumer. To varying degrees, well-heeled consumers are as interested in marking out their social status by what foods they do and don’t eat – and by what drugs they do and don’t take – as they are in social justice.
The obvious riposte is that it is the insanely counter-productive war on illegal drugs that keeps Burma under the generals, Latin America terrorised by gangsters, the rich world’s prisons full and the burglars coming through your bathroom windows. Legalise drugs and the trade will pass to respectable business people,. Then prices will fall, health and safety standards will be met and the Treasury will pick up a useful new source of revenue for hospitals and schools.
Easy to say, yet it’s hard for even the victims to accept full-scale legalisation. In 2003, the Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez condemned the US intervention in his country’s civil war, which is as much about drugs as politics, as “imperial voracity”. He was quoted as saying that the only way out for the 400,000 refugees the conflict had produced was for the Americans to accept that they were wrong and legalise drugs. But he hastily issued a clarification. He didn’t to see criminals rewarded. “What I said is that the Colombian drama is such that, to be exact, it is not possible to imagine that an end will be put to drug-trafficking without consumption being legalised. That is the enormity of the tragedy . . . Colombians are having to suffer.”
For now, you can shrug and say that tragedy is the way of the world. But when western consumers buy fair trade Colombian coffee and follow it with a sniff of foul-trade Colombian cocaine, tragedy topples into farce. If they still want to pose as ethical consumers, they should look for the remarkably few reports in the western media that link the suffering in the poor world to the fashions of the rich.
One appeared recently in Private Eye. It was written from Honduras and described how the severed heads of policemen are left in public parks as warnings to others. Two days before Christmas, a drugs gang armed with AK-47s, paid for by the proceeds of deals in faraway bars, fired on a bus “just for kicks” and killed 28 men, women and children.
“So, thank you for your drugs money, self-appointed first world,” the writer concluded. “Another thoughtful donation to our ailing country, along with military hardware and paedophile tourists. We are told here that at some of your London dinner parties, an after-dinner toot has . . . taken the place of your traditional English pudding among the chattering classes – the very same people who claim to care so deeply about the poor third world. Rather than chopping out their lines on the latest world-music CD, perhaps these enlightened individuals should chop them out instead on a photo of a Honduran bus with the slogan “Dios es amor”, but pockmarked with bullet holes and with the blood-stained dead in the road alongside. Jesus Dominguez, aged 45; Maria Anita Portillo, aged 14; Alexander Gutierrez, aged seven; Javier Barahona, aged two. After all who paid for the bullets?”
If you want to be treated as ethical, you must just say no.
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