Michael Pollan On Caffeine, Opium, Mescaline

The legend is back with another book about plants that profoundly shape our society.

  
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One of the writers I most revere in journalism, Michael has a style that is as lucid as his research is exhaustive. His new book, This Is Your Mind on Plants — specifically coffee, poppies, and the San Pedro cactus — is a continuation of his magisterial How to Change Your Mind, a deep dive into psychedelics that made the subject more respectable than it’s ever been. (My 2018 review of that book, “Just Say Yes to Drugs,” is included in my new essay collection.)

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Michael — on our shared love of gardening and why it’s so zen; on whether psychoactive drugs may have sparked the rise of religion; and how the first coffee houses were a kind of proto-internet — head over to our YouTube page.

A reader has a related email on the subject of this week’s episode:

I just wanted to say thank you for “Reasons To Be Cheerful” (I know I’m a week late on it). I’m particularly thrilled that you mentioned the stuff about various psychedelics and their potential to help those suffering from mental health issues, especially veterans. As a retired Navy SEAL with a 100% anxiety disability, I can tell you that I believe those medicines offer tons of promise. They should be taken seriously, but we need to pursue their use in a clinical setting. Given the fact that just as many Americans kill themselves every year as die from breast cancer and opioid overdoses (both of which receive lots of media coverage), we need to start paying better attention to mental health and how to actually help those who are suffering, instead of continuing to push drugs manufactured by pharmaceutical companies that do a lot for their profits, but very little for the afflicted.

That reader’s message is especially needed this week, as news broke that a record 93,000 Americans died last year from a drug overdose, up 29 percent from the previous year. It’s a staggering loss on top of the pandemic, and one I’m not happy to say I predicted.

Another reader looks back to last week’s episode:

I loved your conversation with Amy Chua. It gave me lots of pep in my step. As an Iranian immigrant, I am extremely grateful to America.

Another reader dissents — toward me:

I’m a long-time reader since 2008 and have been a subscriber to all iterations of the Dish. With that said, Andrew, STOP TALKING OVER YOUR GUESTS SO GODDANG MUCH. I can’t count how many times you cut off Amy to do a little disquisition about your own frustrations with the woke left. When I wanna know your opinions on the topic, I read your columns, but in the podcast, I wanna hear what your guest has to say!

Point taken. I was feisty last week and may have gotten over-excited. But I don’t see the podcasts so much as interviews as conversations. This reader liked my rants:

I think your podcast with Amy Chua helped you to clarify your concern for CRT and its effects on our democracy. It is easy to dismiss CRT as irrelevant since, like most people, I know of no black person who believes in CRT or the 1619 Project; no Hispanic who uses Latinx; no one who wants to defund the police; no white person who is a White Supremacist, and no one at all who thinks that someone with a penis should be allowed in a spa with naked women.

What I thought most important was your discussion about minorities thriving in the face of oppression. Chua pointed out how there are cross-cultural traits that lead to success. This is true on my block. I live in an integrated but predominantly white neighborhood. The black families who live on my block have been successful and have accumulated impressive wealth. They have in common the things you discussed: stable, two-parent homes; both parents employed; college graduates. I would be foolish to say that I have not benefited from being a member of the cis-heteronormative white patriarchy, but these advantages have not prevented others from achieving success.

The promise of liberal democracy is that it’s not zero-sum. Another reader:

Your liberal friends have changed — dramatically — and are telling you that you are the ones that have changed. There is a word for that, and it is one that they should understand well: GASLIGHTING. I’ve had many conversations just like the ones you reference, and ever since I started using that word, I have been winning those arguments. It’s especially effective if you use combine it with a haughty victim-valorizing tone: “I’m not going to let you gaslight me!” Woke jiu jitsu.

Another week, another dissent over CRT:

I’m still working on why I’m so annoyed with your take on Critical Race Theory. Two things: 1. Your tone of outrage is so close to that of right-wing nuts that it offends me, and gives more power to them; and 2. I think you are looking at it wrong.

I don’t think anyone who is thoughtful about and supportive of CRT meant to erase the Enlightenment or its values. And I don’t think it is intended to replace anything. It’s not a “philosophy of life” or a complete history of the USA. It’s a way of looking at the world, and specifically US history and society that has been sorely lacking. It’s supplemental to the education I received oh so long ago in MA public schools. My mainstream US education covered the unfortunate history of slavery (in MA, something that happened “down there, certainly not here”); the Civil War and Lincoln’s principled, moral decision to free the slaves; some vague stuff on Reconstruction, then fast forward to the Civil Rights movement, Voting Rights Act and Title VII. It’s a really comfortable view of US history, and one I am painfully nostalgic for.

That history isn’t false; it’s incomplete. And a view of society that shows various statistics about how a higher proportion of African-American citizens fail to complete high school, end up in jail, become addicted to whatever, and do not own homes or have savings is all true, but putting an Enlightenment lens on it is inadequate and incomplete. Racism is baked into many of our systems, and it has been since the beginning. Much improvement has occurred since the ‘60s due to the Civil Rights movement, but it’s not yet gone.

I suppose my study of history has also led me to believe there are no straight lines, but often there are pendulum swings. In the past the pendulum favored WASPs over all others. With the Civil Rights movement, it favored them less strongly. But it hasn’t gone over to the other side! Perhaps that’s what all this silly identity politics is about. Perhaps for a generation, “victims” of oppression need to be recognized, perhaps in close cases, the minority candidate should win that place at Harvard, or that promotion, or some prize or recognition. That will be a tiny start towards balancing the old pendulum.

So I say, instead of declaring CRT to be imposing an end on our Western, Enlightenment values on which our democracy is based, how bout we just say Thanks CRT! You’ve got a really important perspective that we need to incorporate into our worldview to supplement what we already know/see.

As with so many issues during this time of a great divide, it’s not black or white, it’s not a zero-sum game; we can take ideas and connect them with an “and” instead of “or.” Isn’t that what intelligent people should be arguing for? And to the extent proponents of CRT are arguing it’s a comprehensive, singular historical truth and true worldview, well that’s what we should be exposing, rather than attacking the ideas that CRT contributes. What do you think? 

I’m sorry but you cannot be a supporter of the Enlightenment and also CRT. The whole point of CRT is to dismantle the Enlightenment, its claims to universal reason, its notion of an individual, and the primacy of means over ends in liberalism. And you suggest as much by saying we should now discriminate against Asian-Americans, say, the way we used to discriminate against African-Americans, because of balancing the pendulum. I agree that we should have more awareness and study and teaching of the darkest side of American history; but not as a way to argue that nothing has changed, or that these darkest moments define America still, and that we have to dismantle all the systems — of free speech, free association, free markets, and individual rights — by revolution if necessary. That’s what’s being taught to kids now.

Along those lines, a reader recommends a guest for the Dishcast:

I have been fascinated by the debate over Critical Race Theory, with you espousing it as an assault on the foundations of our liberal democracy. It has been interesting for me to wrestle with this, while, in parallel, listening to The Witness podcast: A
Black Christian Collective. It’s co-hosted by Jemar Tisby and Tyler Burns, two compelling Black Christians standing in the tradition of the Black Church. Both are
working tirelessly in the field of racial justice, with Jemar having released two NYT best-selling books; “The Color of Compromise” and “How to Fight Racism.” 

Of keen interest in the current debate over CRT is Jemar’s insistence that CRT is not a new thing, and instead has been coming from white evangelical churches for years, as a label to dismiss the work of those fighting to reduce systemic racism in our beloved country, and is part of the virulent cancer of white Christian Nationalism. See especially this Substack post.

Having the cognitive dissonance of these two competing views in mind, I would love to see you pursue a debate on the issue with Jemar or Tyler or another of the members of the Witness. I have the deepest respect for both you and Black Christians epitomized by Jemar and Tyler, which seem to be on opposite sides of this debate, even as you are united by the extremely dangerous threat of white Christian nationalism.

Another reader recommends Gloria Purvis, a black Catholic who grew up in Charleston and recently launched her own pod for America magazine:

The podcast centers the opinions, stories and experiences of individuals who have been marginalized in the Catholic Church and in society. A consistent ethic of life informs the conversations and honestly critiques narrow applications of church teachings or ideological attitudes. It’s all about fostering a culture of charitable dialogue around the most complex and contentious issues in the Catholic Church today. 

The reader adds, “In one of her episodes, Purvis talks about ‘structures of sin, including systemic racism,’ saying that Derek Chauvin was ‘destroyed by systemic racism’ — which made me think of this passage from your recent column”:

And so Biden, influenced by Catholic Social Teaching, has tragically blurred its essential distinction from Critical Race Theory. Yes, CST has a conception of “structural sin” — primarily deployed by liberation theologians as a critique of capitalism, and rehabilitated in some measure by Francis in his priority for the poor. But it is not rooted in atheism, as CRT is; it does not believe in race essentialism, as CRT does; it does not see the world as purely a function of a zero-sum power struggle between “white” and “nonwhite,” as CRT does; for Catholics, there is “neither Greek nor Jew” — there is only humanity. CST offers salvation in the after-life, while CRT is rooted in the Marxist belief that there are no souls, only bodies, and no life after death, merely death

If you also have a good recommendation for someone to debate and discuss CRT on the Dishcast, please let us know: dish@andrewsullivan.com. Here’s one more for now:

I was just reading the historian Patty Limerick’s latest blog post about reckoning with Harold Bloom as a way of thinking about other flawed historical figures. It occurred to me that she would be an interesting Dishcast guest, someone who, arguably, was the Nikole Hannah-Jones of her day in the 1980s, shredding the myth of the American West in the Reagan era — but who in later life, has taken up a mission to create bipartisan conversations for a broad public audience. She’s down-to-earth, funny, and would get your listeners off the Atlantic coast for a little variety.

Lastly, here’s yet another look back at our popular episode with Jon Rauch, from a professor of philosophy and religion in the South:

I thought your discussion with Rauch was very interesting. It’s rare that you have someone on the podcast who really seems at your intellectual level. And to have Rauch’s calm analysis of the situation establishing a clear hierarchy of threats was a refreshing take.

But as I listened to your increasing discomfort at his unwillingness to attribute all evil in the world to the 1619 Project, culminating in your declamation that critical race theory controlled “all three centers of culture — the academy, the media and the congress,” I suddenly had an insight as to what was going on.

First, a little background. I’m an academic myself. I teach in a joint department with Philosophers, so you’d think I’d be at ground zero of the academic takeover by critical theories of race and gender. And yet as I look around the table at faculty meetings, I recognize that those who espouse CT are really a small minority. When we went through racial sensitivity training for our last hire, I was appalled not by its radicality but by its banality — keep discussions to qualifications rather than proxies for race and gender like hair, clothes, or physical traits.

How is it that a few academic scholars whose writings are admittedly obtuse should generate so much more passion from you than the movement that truly has captured half of America, that set to obstruct a peaceful transition of power, that has tried to tamper with the judiciary, that broke every norm of civility and tradition? And how is it possible that those few Ivory Tower intellectuals should in your imagination pose such a threat to the very fabric of liberalism when Trumpian forces in state legislature after state legislature exercise their authoritarian impulses? Then when I heard Rauch’s very clear-eyed estimate, it became clear to me what this really is — a moral panic. 

You know the nature of a moral panic, of course. The majority sets upon a minority. That minority is a danger to everything the majority stands for. They have infiltrated every aspect of government and culture. They have no empathy or humanity and are hell-bent on their world domination. Of course, they are always in the shadows, hidden behind the levers of power, wielding their destruction by infiltration rather than direct act. They are always a minority both numerically and in terms of race, gender, or sexuality. And the prescription is always to focus on them to the exclusion of more real and obvious threats that actually have guns, ammo, and a plan. And the solution is never anything less than a full-on battle which the panicked warn their audiences they are likely to lose, but which they never do. Because a minority, no matter how well theorized or demonic never can stand against the majority. 

This is not to say that affirmation of the core principles of liberalism, or the more subtle and helpful approach of critical realism, should be abandoned. There have been excesses in the academy. But compared to the events of January 6, they have been minor.

What Rauch did in his comments was make a simple equation: if we fight for the triumph of facts and reality against the right, whose power and influence is really much more frightening and widespread, the re-establishment of facts and argument will be incumbent on the left as well. But a moral panic against a handful of academics is easier and much more likely to be successful. It’s always easier to kill a mouse than an elephant, as Rauch said. The Trump right is much more problematic, and success is far less assured. 

Additionally, what we see now is that the illiberal right has taken the liberal center’s criticism as license for more authoritarian actions. The result is shown in the passing of laws outlawing the teaching of CRT in 14 Republican legislatures, the Board of Trustee intervention at the University of North Carolina as two examples, has proceeded in predictable fashion for a moral panic. This has led to pearl-clutching among liberals who are shocked — shocked — that this might be the outcome.

So let’s review: suppression of free speech, academic freedom, and minority viewpoints — check. No real solving of the problem — check. The increase of the illiberal right — check. Moral Panic Successful!

I hardly expect that you will turn over a new leaf. And I’m aware that the CT Twitter warriors affect you personally far more than the gun-toting Proud Boys agitating for a race war. And yet, I’d urge some perspective, as Rauch offered.

Moral panics do happen. I’d say the uprising among the elites in the “racial reckoning” of the summer of 2020 against the specter of “white supremacy” would count high among them. Buildings burned, businesses looted, neighborhoods destroyed, centers of cities turned into zones of anarchy, massive spikes in murder, firings of the guilty across countless sectors of industry, mandatory public confessions of fealty to a new movement, public breakdowns and near-religious public acts of self-flagellation — all these qualify as a moral panic, do they not? And I think the mounting evidence of a Kulturkampf is far, far more widespread than a “few academic scholars.”

But yes, the shenanigans in state legislatures about future elections is deeply concerning, which is why I referred to them in the same piece. I’m less convinced by Biden’s hyperbolic rhetoric about some of the voter i.d. requirements than I am about giving legislatures more control over election procedures. But I don’t really disagree with you on this, as the last few years of this column would indicate. I’m particularly worried by the enduring cult-like support for Trump among the GOP base — when he has been revealed, especially in reports coming out this past week, as an enemy of our entire constitutional system and the rule of law. Watch this space on that.

But I don’t think you have to choose. You can oppose both threats. The difference at the moment is that the successor ideology really is in power. It controls the federal government, almost all of corporate America, every cultural institution, almost every mainstream newspaper and website, and is made compulsory for many just to remain employed. It governs the hiring practices of almost every business now; and to object to it means you will either be fired or not hired. Of course, some are whipping up opposition to CRT for culture war and political reasons. But they are reacting against an act of aggression from the neo-Marxist left in education. In that sense, moral panics generate other moral panics.