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Liberal psychologists in the Brave New World

By Jack J. Woehr
web posted June 11, 2001

The National Institute on Drug Abuse is the government's think-tank tasked, in effect, with finding retroactive pseudoscientific justification for the failed policies of the United States' War on Drugs. So I suppose that Dr. Alan Leshner, the director of NIDA and fervent advocate of expanded government intervention in American's personal lives, is my opponent in the campaign to reform drug policy. Still, it's hard for me to become angry with him: back in  1956, teenaged Alan Leshner was the nicest babysitter my sister and I ever had.

Talk about nanny government! My mother, psychologist Mindell Woehr, last week sent me a copy of the American Psychological Association's June, 2001 issue of Monitor on Psychology, accompanied by a note pointing out the article by "Dr. Saul Leshner's son" and instructing me to "contact him with your ideas." Mom, I'm sure the good doctor is pestered with enough ideas already, but I do promise to drop him a line with the URL of this article.

Mom, Dad, and Dr. Saul Leshner were all part of the brilliant and liberal psychological/psychiatric community of the 1950's and 1960's. Survivors of the Great Depression, winners of World War II, young psychologists were a key component of the positivist intelligentsia which came into its own in the Kennedy years. Alan and I are both heirs of this tradition; I'm sure that he was, like I was, reading Freud, Adler and Jung by the time he was a teenager. But I feel that Alan's Monitor article, "What does it mean that addiction is a brain disease?" exemplifies the decline and decay of the liberal positivism of our parents' generation into the paternalistic authoritarianism characteristic of modern times.
Dr. Alan Leshner
Dr. Alan Leshner

The intent of Alan's article is liberal in the best sense of the word. He wants to encourage progress towards what politicians who sense some reform is inevitable timidly call "the treatment option." Alan writes:

Numerous studies have shown that treating addicted offenders while they are under criminal justice control dramatically reduces later criminality and drug use.
Acute observers of the American criminal justice system recognize that system as having rather arbitrary definitions of substance addiction and drug offenses. Furthermore, there is a school of thought within the community of psychologists which posits that society's criminalization of recreational intoxicants may be a catalyst in transforming mild recreational use into panicky addiction. But the specific piece of circular reasoning so central to the government's take on drugs is also central to Alan's thesis. It runs roughly like this: Drug addiction is a brain disease and the proof of this is that when we arrest people for drug offences and release them without treatment they return to crime (i.e., finding the means of continuing to take drugs in a system where they are artificially scarce and expensive).

I understand where Alan comes by his views: tragically substance dependent individuals do indeed often need treatment to help cope with the biological components of their habituation. But it's a long leap from there to the government's current position that any indulgence in intoxicants, particularly intoxicants appearing on the arbitrary and unscientific DEA schedule,  is an illness which society must uproot violently.

At the heart of Alan's reasoning we discover a stunning piece of metaphysics. He writes,

Polarized thinking also surrounds the brain disease concept of addiction. People who object to it frequently say addiction is simply a failure of will; it is only about behavior, not about biology ... A century of psychobiological research has taught us never to pit biology against behavior. We have finally learned that we do not have separate minds and bodies - dualism is dead.
The notion of separate minds and bodies is philosophical and cannot be either proven or disproven by scientific methods any more than the Soviets disproved the notion of heaven by catapulting Sputnik into space. I'm reminded of fictional World Controller Mustapha Mond in Aldous Huxley's dystopic Brave New World. In that novel, Mustapha Mond explains the brave new world's guiding principle thusly:
"Stability. Stability. No civilization without social stability. No social stability without individual stability. Wheels must turn steadily, but cannot turn untended. There must be men to tend them, men as steady as the wheels upon their axles, sane men, obedient men, stable in their contentment."
In Brave New World, too, dualism is dead. The fetus gestates in vitro until decanting. The purest eugenics coupled with rigid hypnopaedic indoctrination of youth (how amusing Huxley would have found D.A.R.E!) are the key to the integrated social unit of a world whose axiom is, "Everyone belongs to everyone else." In 1946, Huxley wrote in an introduction to the reprint of his 1931 classic:
A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive ... controls a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced because they love their servitude. The love of servitude cannot be established  except as the result of a deep, personal revolution in human minds and bodies. To bring about that [ominous and impending] revolution, we require, among others, the following discoveries and inventions. First, a greatly improved technique of suggestion ... Second, a fully developed science of human differences. (Round pegs in square holes tend to have dangerous thoughts about the social system and to infect others with their discontents.) Third, since reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays, a substitute for alcohol and the other narcotics, something at once less harmful and more pleasure-giving than gin or heroin.
Prozac? Viagra? Though Huxley painted his satire using lurid colors, his supposition that "the Manhattan Projects of the future will be vast government-sponsored inquiries into what politicians and the participating scientists will call 'the problem of happiness' - in other words, the problem of making people love their servitude" is granted existential validity by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and by Dr. Alan Leshner's impassioned call for more treatment for the underclass prisoners of a sealed drugs-and-prisons biosphere erected by the government itself.

The whole June, 2001 issue of the APA Monitor is devoted to substance abuse, called by APA CEO Dr. Raymond D. Fowler "The greatest threat to our nation's health". Articles on how "Adolescents aren't getting the help they need" and how "Court appearances can stem teen smoking" round out the issue. But these, along with calls for more study into children's consumption of caffeine and for targeting middle schools with drug prevention, contrast oddly with the issue's stirring defense of the practice of prescribing ritalin to school children.

It's all hypocrisy, of course, hypocrisy of the sort into which all the liberal ideals of our forbears have decayed. The final piece of the puzzle is the lead headline on the cover of the "Special Issue on Substance Abuse". That headline reads:

Substance abuse treatment: an untapped practice opportunity.
So much for idealism. High-minded social engineering schemes notwithstanding, psychologists can be swayed by Adam Smith's "invisible hand" just as the rest of us are. Yes, the drug war is a profit center to the psychology profession, and if the era of draconian sentences gives way only to an era of indeterminate confinement for compulsory treatment until "cured", history will demand of the liberal psychologist, Cui bono?

Jack Woehr of Fairmount Colorado is chronically wary of government's tendency to just drop in to see what condition your condition is in.

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