The Psychedelic Election

A new issue arrives on the horizon. Why it matters.

There are many ways in which this election might portend the future, but there’s a seemingly small issue — only on the ballot in Oregon and the District of Columbia — that’s a sleeper, it seems to me, and worth keeping an eye on. It’s the decriminalization of naturally-occurring psychedelics, in particular, psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in some mushrooms which have long been dubbed “magic.” 

This doesn’t come out of the blue. Huge strides have been taken in the last few years in the decriminalization of cannabis, with 33 states allowing medical use, of which 11 allow recreational as well. The FDA recently greenlit clinical trials for psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” for depression — with some wildly impressive results. Books like Michael Pollan’s magisterial “How To Change Your Mind” have helped shift the reputation of psychedelics from groovy, counter-cultural weirdness to mature, spiritual, and regulated mental health treatment. Ketamine — previously a party drug and an animal tranquilizer — has shown more promise as an anti-depressant than any therapy since the mid-1990s. 

The familiar worry, of course, is that we might be ushering in an era of wild drug experimentation, with unforeseen and unknowable results. Some people fear that relaxing some of the legal restrictions on things that grow in nature could lead to social disruption or higher levels of addiction or worse. The great popularizer of psychedelics, Aldous Huxley, gave us a somewhat sobering description of what might be our future in “Brave New World”, and many in the West have been terrified of these substances for quite a while. 

But new research suggests that this shift toward integrating psychedelics into a healthy, responsible life for Westerners may not be new at all. It would, in fact, be a return to a civilization that used these substances as a bulwark of social and personal peace. New literary investigations of ancient texts, new — and re-examined — archeological finds, and cutting edge bio-chemical technology that can detect and identify substances in long-buried artifacts, suggest that deploying psychedelics would, in fact, be a return to a Brave Old World we are only now rediscovering. 

We’ve long known that human knowledge of psychedelic aspects of nature goes back into pre-history; and use of them just as far. But perhaps the most surprising find in this new area of research is that sacred tripping was not simply a function of prehistoric religious rituals and shamanism, but an integral, even central part, of the world of the ancient Greeks. The society that remains the basis for so much of Western civilization seems to have held psychedelics as critical to its vision of human flourishing. And that vision may have a role to play in bringing Western civilization back into balance. 

A breakthrough in understanding this comes in the form of a rigorously scholarly new book, “The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion With No Name”, by Brian Muraresku. What he shows is the centrality of psychedelic use for the ancient Greeks, in an elaborate and mysterious once-in-a-lifetime ceremony at the Temple of Eleusis, a short distance from Athens. We’ve long known about this temple of the Mysteries, as they were known, and the rite of passage they offered — because it’s everywhere in the record. Many leading Greeks and Romans went there, including Plato and Marcus Aurelius. Here is Cicero, no less, in De Legibus:

“For it appears to me that among the many exceptional and divine things your Athens has produced and contributed to human life, nothing is better than those Mysteries. For by means of them we have been transformed from a rough and savage way of life to the state of humanity, and been civilized. Just as they are called initiations, so in actual fact we have learned from them the fundamentals of life, and have grasped the basis not only for living with joy, but also for dying with a better hope.”

I’ve pondered that quote since first reading it. When you think of the reverence the Romans had for the ancient Greeks, and when you think of the countless gifts the Greeks gave the Romans, from philosophy to democracy, Cicero decided that this was the most “exceptional and divine” contribution Athens made? And he associated it not with tripping hippies or social decay or trivial licentiousness, but with civilization itself?

Ditto the great Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius, hardly a rebel, who was initiated in the Mysteries — and even rebuilt the Temple of Eleusis when it was nearly destroyed by barbarians in the second century AD. These are not marginal figures. They are the elite of the elite. And they see mystical experience, perhaps occasioned by psychedelics, as central to civilization itself.

The Greeks and Romans went to Eleusis only once in their lives, like the Muslim hajj, to participate in a nocturnal rite, and were sworn to secrecy as to what went on. But the constant theme in the ancient literature around this ritual is that it somehow took the sting of death away. “Death is for mortals no longer an evil, but a blessing” was the phrase attached to it. “You died before you died and so didn’t die.” Historians and classicists have long pondered what this meant and what exactly happened, but all agree that it required drinking a special brew. And new discoveries of ancient chalices and cups — and new techniques of testing ancient residue — have begun to suggest what made these archaic potions so special.

Alongside alcohol, they contained countless herbs and spices and ingredients, among them, critically, elements of ergot, a fungus that infected barley and rye and had potent hallucinogenic effects. (Ergot was very common in the past, and often accidentally consumed in moldy bread in the middle ages — causing what was called the ignis sacer, sacred fire, which led many to vivid hallucinations and even suicide.) 

The Greeks appear to have mastered the formula, and a tiny chalice discovered in Spain suggests a small, careful dosage, amid a welter of other finely tuned ingredients. Another re-examined excavation in Pompeii found the preserved remains at the bottom of large barrels jars dated to 79 CE: chemical analysis found it included seeds of cannabis, opium, and hallucinogenic nightshades. The recipe for the psychedelic brew and the preparation of it was restricted to women, who passed on the secret recipes from mother to daughter, and was the particular preserve of older women.

The effect, we’re told in the sources, was transformative: you saw past life and death, you became unafraid of your own mortality, you gained perspective and inner peace. It’s hard not to be struck by the parallels among the patients interviewed by Michael Pollan:

“Several patients described edging up to the precipice of death and looking over to the other side. Tammy Burgess, given a diagnosis of ovarian cancer at fifty-five, found herself gazing across ‘the great plain of consciousness. It was very serene and beautiful. I felt alone but I could reach out and touch anyone I’d ever known. When my time came, that’s where my life would go once it left me and that was O.K.’”

Now also recall that in the current Johns Hopkins psilocybin trials, around 75 percent of the research volunteers consistently rated their sole dose of psilocybin as either the single most meaningful experience of their lives, or among the top five. Psilocybin is also now being used in hospices, where the dying often report a new calm and serenity as they approach the end of their physical lives, and in addiction programs, where success rates have leapt, and in prisons, where recidivism has sharply declined among those treated. It’s entirely plausible that these moderns are simply repeating the profound experience the ancients spoke so glowingly about, and ritualized in life-altering ceremonies. 

By the third and fourth centuries, the more established Christian authorities began to crack down on the women who seemed to be keeping this psychedelic tradition alive (they were later demonized as witches), and not long after Rome’s formal conversion to Christianity, the Temple of Eleusis was destroyed in order to end one of the most long-running religious ceremonies in human history. Some were alarmed by this religious vandalism, and opposed to it. A Roman aristocrat at the time, one Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, who had been initiated at Eleusis, said that destroying the rites “would make the life of the Greeks unlivable” and argued that the temple was the one place that “holds the whole human race together.”

Here’s what I think Praetextatus might have meant by that. A profound psychedelic experience can give a human being a new perspective, a sense of overpowering divine love, of the unimportance of death, and of the power unleashed by the love of others. It changes you because you cannot unsee the view from the mountaintop. It disappears from view in normal practical life, but your knowledge that it is there, that transcendence is possible, mitigates the jagged and ugly impulses of the primate mind.

The collapse in religious faith has exacerbated our lack of perspective, and made our divisions more intractable. Our online lives have become a source of acute anxiety and distraction. Our psychological dependence on consumerism, entertainment, and materialism has deepened the spiritual crisis. In this context, the psychedelic experience is a strange shortcut to serenity. And the more who have access to it — safe, responsible, moderated access — the more possibility we have that these wounds can heal and our civilization can endure and thrive. 

The Greeks knew this. I suspect some early Christians, influenced by this tradition, did as well. We can rediscover it — with research, open minds and rigorous deployment of science. If you live in DC, or in Oregon, help propel this process of rediscovery forward. We have a republic and a world to rescue. 


Littleton, Colorado, 1.48 pm


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Poole, England, 11 am


Dissents Of The Week: Is Wokeness Really Winning?

Bruce Bawer, who generously grants that I am not “a low-information voter, a low-IQ voter, or an enemy of freedom who longs for America’s destruction,” can’t understand why I support Biden as a conservative.

Bruce’s piece is a variation on the Flight 93 Election narrative in which we are just one vote away from the end of the American experiment, because of wokeness and looming economic leftism. I am not unaware of how far to the left Biden has moved, especially on immigration, where he promised a massive amnesty last night, which would encourage another wave of mass immigration. He also seems captured by the woke on issues like the replacement of sex with gender as a legal category, and semi-support for racial “equity”. My vote for him is not without reservations.

But I don’t see Biden as a radical figure, except with climate change, where it seems to me radicalism is absolutely necessary. And I don’t think he represents even a smidgen of the threat that Trump poses to liberal democratic norms. If he wins, we will indeed have to fight the woke and illiberal left in his administration and elsewhere, a fight I relish and look forward to. But the alternative — a deeply corrupt, fantastically incompetent, psychologically sick, congenitally dishonest, wannabe strongman — is unacceptable. Doing nothing while the planet burns is unacceptable. Fomenting chaos as a virus spreads out of control is unacceptable. Intensifying social and economic inequality is unacceptable. Trillions of dollars of new debt without investment in infrastructure is unacceptable.

Similarly, James Lindsay, who has done sterling, vital work exposing the ugly fraud of critical theory, regards the threat of wokeness as the core issue, and so is voting Trump. That is his prerogative. But what I think he misses is how Trump has facilitated, exacerbated and legitimized wokeness more than any other figure on the right or left. He has made anti-wokeness toxic by association. If we are to make progress in weaning the elites off this poison, we have to sever that link.

In response to my column last week, readers challenged the premise that wokeness is, in fact, winning. Here’s one reader pointing to major signs of anti-wokeness in two of the bluest states:

The California initiative to reinstate affirmative action, Prop 16, is far behind in the polls. Elected officials in a monoculture like California politics are an out-of-touch elite that has no cognizance that maybe voters are able to distinguish between equality and affirmative action. The polling could still change, but last year Washington State tried the same thing, and the voters rejected it, maintaining their ban on affirmative action.

Here’s hoping. The margin in Washington was just one percent, though. Another reader:

The CRT movement, while successful via all the threads you laid out, is still absolutely limited to the elite spheres, and it has precious little chance of becoming mainstream. It’s true that the elite oversee much cultural programming, but we still live in a free market society. And the market of ideas will not embrace CRT or Wokeness as the dominant thought platform in our country. The NYT may be the paper of record, but it’s certainly not mainstream anymore. Heck, even universities aren’t mainstream; still only a minority of Americans gain a university degree (35%).

If you work in a major corporation, or have a kid in school, you are now subject to CRT. That’s not just the elite. Read these stories from Dish readers confronting CRT in a range of places. Another reader dissents by pointing to the distortive power of social media:

There is a small subset of woke people that behave like you say, amplified by the Internet’s power to magnify tiny groups into appearing far larger. America isn’t woke, nor are the Democrats really. The approach should be “we should be mindful,” not “the inquisition cometh”.

As another reader puts it, “You’re hyperventilating about a Twitterified caricature of a group that disagrees with itself all the time.” I’m honestly exhausted by all this denial. Another dissent:

You danced around what I consider to be the single biggest factor in the spread of CRT outside academia: revulsion towards Trump. It’s more than just general disgust with his antics. Trump’s botched handling of the racial protests after the death of George Floyd and his blatant appeals to bigotry make him a walking, talking, tweeting example of the racist cis-white patriarchy that should be smashed.

Another reader makes a prediction:

We know that the Tea Party came about largely in reaction to Obama and lost much of its raison d'etat after Trump’s election. Wokeness could be a similar political phenomenon. For that reason alone, I think it is too early to say that wokeness is winning. If Trump is defeated next month, many who now support wokeness —particularly those outside of academia — will revert to MLK-style liberalism.

Inshallah! Another reader points a finger at the right:

You think wokeness has taken over the culture and that’s the most pressing problem facing traditional liberalism? Try watching Fox News. The spread of CRT is the symptom, not the disease.

It’s also the other way around — both/and — as this reader notes:

Zach Goldberg shows us conclusively that woke terminology pre-dates Trump by c.5 years. Jonathan Haidt dates the problem in academia even earlier than that, and Yglesias dates the Great Awokening to 2014. So clearly something changed. But it wasn’t Trump.

This next reader suggests that the glorious victories of the previous generation are causing today’s activists to tilt at windmills:

As an overly educated millennial, my generation was steeped from childhood in the heroic myth of the Civil Rights Movement. By “myth,” I don’t mean “fiction” — civil rights activists were and are genuinely heroic! — but rather an animating, thematic story, somewhat like a secular religion, as you note. This was the main example of a real-world battle between good and evil, so if you wanted to make the world a better place, that’s the mission you seek to advance. This has led to anti-discrimination being the main theme that the Democrats uses to animate younger voters, with follow-on help from nonprofits and woke-branded corporations (the latter of which, of course, benefit greatly from the lack of focus on corporate power). I don’t dispute the realities of systemic racism and white privilege, but I do think this has encouraged a narrow-yet-all-encompassing view of the country’s problems.

Brilliantly put. Speaking of activists, a reader quibbles:

Black Lives Matter the organization doesn’t call for abolishing the police. (Here are their guiding principles.) Now, the Movement for Black Lives does call for abolishing the police, but that is a different and unaffiliated organization.

Splitters! But seriously, Black Lives Matter is decentralized by design, and one of the main chapters, Black Lives Matter DC, explicitly endorsed the case made in the NYT to “literally abolish the police.” And when they say “defund the police,” the DC chapter and its Defund MPD coalition demand unequivocally, “Reduce the MPD budget each year until we get to zero.” The slippery language of “defund” is textbook CRT and pomo.

A few more pushbacks:

It’s very unfair to call Briahna Gray Joy a woke activist. I think she’s nuts not to support Biden/Harris in this election, but, like Bernie, she’s more of an old-fashioned leftist who understands the importance of class-based appeals that transcend race. (See this essay she wrote for The Intercept.) I wish many more on the left shared her political philosophy — just not her political choices.

Another reader:

You wrote, “The NBA, for Pete’s sake, is now a festival of wokeness, even as viewership collapses.” You linked to two articles in that sentence and I’m honestly curious if you even read them. The first is just old man shaking his fist, so whatever, but the Bloomberg piece says that TV viewership overall is down and then contains the following paragraph: 

The rise of social-justice protests this year seems to have had little effect on sports TV viewing. The NBA led the sports world in the movement […] The racial composition of the postseason NBA audience barely changed from last year, with about 45% of viewers being White.

I’d just like to point to this piece from the Miami Heat player who refused to kneel for the anthem while also wearing Black Lives Matter on his jersey, with the support of his teammates. Isn’t this what we want — dialogue and compromise? 

On that note, this reader gets the last word:

I think a more generous interpretation of the embrace of CRT is that a larger number of people feel some semblance of moral obligation to combat injustice, particularly when the most grotesque instances of it can now be amplified through social media. I think this is laudable, even though I personally find CRT to be absurd and counterproductive, which is why I think it’s incumbent on all of us to confront the more dangerous methods and exclusionary language while trying to find common ground in seeking a more just society.


Cool Ad Watch

A psychedelic break from all the political ads:


The Germaphobe Who Let The Virus Rip, Ctd

A reader looks to Trump’s upbringing for insight:

Why did a germaphobe president downplay COVID? The best clue for this comes from his niece, Mary Trump, who says that being sick in the Trump family was deeply frowned upon, a sign of weakness and a failing. Fred Trump gave no quarter to any slowing down, physical illness or not, which looked a lot like laziness to him.

So Trump wanting to avoid illness while at the same time downplaying it (even when he had the virus!) makes perfect sense: you hide coughs and sneezes to avoid that glare from Donald, just like his dad Fred did with him and his siblings. Don't slow down, tough it out, and be strong. That was Trump’s message to the country when COVID hit because it echoed in his head from childhood.

Another reader dissents over me pointing the finger at Trump:

How do you explain the virus now ripping through Europe AGAIN? Even Merkel is frightened by the quick increase in numbers. I suppose you would say that is Trump’s fault as well?

Trump’s initial decision to ignore the very clear warnings in favor of downplaying the virus to sustain economic growth was a critical moment when he put his own perceived political interests above saving lives. If you have any lingering doubts about his malice and incompetence, his subversion of consistent public health messaging, and his decision to use the virus to divide the country, check out Alex Gibney’s latest documentary. It’s damning.

Leaders should be cut some slack in tackling a new virus. The trade-offs are hard, the virus sneaky and strong, and the race is a marathon. But Trump is unique in his initial response and his continuing irresponsibility. For what it’s worth as a counterfactual, a new study out of Columbia University estimates at least 130,000 American deaths could have been prevented if the U.S. had followed a path similar to other wealthy countries.


Mental Health Break

An office romance nearly gets boxed in:


In The ‘Stacks

Our latest picks for independent writing on Substack:

  • Antonio Garcia-Martinez has a fabulous piece on the crumbling credibility of media institutions like the NYT — “a newsy entertainment outlet, à la Jon Oliver, with a business model more like Netflix or Hulu than catchphrases like All The News That’s Fit to Print might suggest.” He predicts the paper “will triumph financially, dramatically so, and utterly fail as an intellectual institution,” preferring narratives over news, ideology over ideas.

  • Jonah Goldberg on the dangers of empathy. “It’s the difference between justice and social justice.”

  • The UK could be getting its own version of Fox News, to the dismay of Ian Dunt.


The View From Your Window Contest

So, where do you think it’s located? Email your entry to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject heading, along with any details about the location within the body of the email. The winner gets a VFYW book. Happy sleuthing!

We’ve decided to spare you two separate emails on Friday — for the window contest and the main Dish — and instead provide a link here for the results for last week’s window. A reader dissents:

Please don’t spare me! Getting one email for VFYW and another for the Weekly Dish was one of the best things about the Substack Dish. I read them when I am different moods. I almost certainly will not click through to the website when I am in the VFYW mood. I like newsletters because they download onto my device and they’re there whenever I feel like reading, even if I’m offline.

That is great feedback we hadn’t considered. Next week, especially with the paywall arriving, we will probably return to sending out the contest as a separate email, since so many contest fanatics will be paying for it.

As always, keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the mix — including the view from your own window: dish@andrewsullivan.com.

See you next Friday.

(Top photo of Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms by Joe Amon / MediaNews Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images. Image of the Eleusis temple by Universal History Archive / Getty Images)