Monday, November 22, 2010

Sean Hannity Doesn't Care What You Think

A few months ago, my favorite Republican, former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson,[1] was interviewed by one of my least favorite Republicans, cable news and talk radio blowhard Sean Hannity. From the transcript (though I've done some editing, because Hannity's is-it-my-turn-to-talk-again-yet interviewing style is about as fun to read as it is to watch):
Hannity: I agree with everything that you did and everything that you said. You support tax cuts, limited government, you've been critical of Obama spending. So you have a pretty strong platform in my mind. In almost every interview that I read about you, it always goes back to the issue that you want to legalize pot.
Johnson: And when I say legalize pot, it's never going to be legal to smoke pot, become impaired and get behind the wheel of a car.
Hannity: But you're ok with people smoking in the privacy of their home?
Johnson: Absolutely.

Hannity: You don't think it's a gateway drug?
Johnson: It's not, Sean. It's just not.
Hannity: I don't believe that.
Alright, looks like we're on the verge of a stimulating discussion! Two diametrically-opposed viewpoints, both professed in no uncertain terms. Somebody's got to be wrong, right? Let's proceed, preferably with one guy listening patiently—mentally composing a thoughtful rebuttal—as the other explains his reasoning.
Johnson: You know, I've got on my cell phone, and I'll show it to you after we're done here, the government itself admitting that it's not—
Hannity: I don't trust that.
Ugh. Nevermind.
Hannity: Would you want your kids to smoke pot?
Johnson: Well, no.
Hannity: Why don't you want your kids to smoke pot? Because you believe psychologically it would be detrimental to them, right?
Johnson: No. No.
Hannity: I do.
Johnson never really answers these questions, though he tries several times. Most of his attempts are hannitied [2] before they can be fully developed, but my educated guess is that he was trying to say something like this:

"Like any decent father, I don't want my kids to do things that are harmful or irresponsible, but I also know it's naïve to expect them to meet that standard 100% of the time. So, more than anything else, I want them to be reasonable. Maybe they'll decide to smoke, maybe they won't—I'm not sure there's much I can do about it either way—but reasonable people can smoke without harming themselves or others, which is what's really important."
Johnson: I find it funny, if you will, that Republicans would talk about the fact that this country stands for freedom, this country stands for liberty, this—and it's about the personal responsibility that goes along with that, but not when it comes to marijuana. And, Sean, if the government made drinking beer illegal tomorrow, would you continue to drink beer or would you stop drinking beer?
Hannity: I don't put it on the same level as drugs. I'm a little bit more afraid of drugs.
The most telling part of the interview. In Sean Hannity's reality, marijuana is a drug, but alcohol isn't. How did that happen? I can't think of a possible explanation that doesn't, at some level, stem from the fact that one is (more or less) legal and the other is (more or less) not.

I'll give Hannity the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is, in fact, aware that alcohol is a drug (as are caffeine, tobacco, aspirin, penicillin, etc.), and that he used the term colloquially to refer to illegal drugs. (And I'll also assume that, when he says a little later that he's not impaired after drinking "a beer, two beers, a glass of wine, two glasses of wine," the missing conjunction is or, not and.) But that almost makes it worse. We can't dismiss his naïveté as the expected result of an absolute lack of familiarity with the very concept of drugs. He uses drugs! He obviously knows, from personal experience, at least a few things about how they work, but he's drawn a mental line between legal and illegal, and he's unable (or unwilling) to allow any knowledge gained from experience to cross that line.
Hannity: I drink—I'm a lightweight. I don't drink a lot. But you can drink alcohol, a beer, two beers, a glass of wine, two glasses of wine, and you're not impaired. If you smoke marijuana you are impaired.
Now things are just getting silly. Does Hannity really think this way? My God, are there elected officials who think this way? "I can have a few drinks and I'm totally still good to drive, but marijuana, which I claim to have never tried? One toke and I'd be an unstoppable car-crashing, homicide-committing, society-menacing fiend, as seen in the harrowing 1938 film Reefer Madness, which is a documentary, right?"

To argue with them when they're like this is to drift dangerously close to "How can you condemn something you've never tried?" territory. That question, taken to a logical extreme (which has never not happened), leads to nonsense like, "Do you think murder is wrong? Have you ever killed anyone? By your logic, you can't say murder is wrong unless you go out and kill someone, can you?"

Alright, alright, fair enough. There's nothing inherently wrong with condemning something you've never tried. But you should, at the very least, make an effort to develop an accurate sense of what that thing is, and to understand why millions of people think you're ridiculous for condemning it.
Hannity: You admitted in your life when you smoked it, it took away your motivation. You were on the path to be a professional skier, so you were much slower, it impairs you.
I bet if you forced Hannity to re-watch this interview, then read this paragraph, then spend 10 seconds or so in quiet contemplation (and let me know how that goes!), he would agree that at this point in the interview he's not even talking about prohibition anymore. He's talking about whether, at the individual level, the sum total of marijuana's effects tend to be positive or negative. And, you know, that's a question with an interesting, complex answer—certainly a conversation worth having—but it's not a legal issue.

Soy sauce, a breathalyzer, a sword, a pre-approved credit card offer, a Mexican wrestling mask, a 13-foot escape ladder (bought for a suspiciously low price), and a television. It only took me about two minutes of looking around my apartment to identify seven things that seem more likely than not to have an overall negative effect on me. Is that a good reason to make those things illegal? Of course not.
Hannity: But if you run for president, how do you reconcile these controversial positions with social conservatives that are not in agreement with you in the Republican Party?
Johnson: Well, and let's just get back to the amount of money that we're spending. Half of what we're spending on law enforcement, the courts and the prisons is drug-related. About $70 billion a year. And to what end? We're arresting 1.8 million people a year in this country on drug-related crime. And the use of drugs has not gone down. So again, advocating the legalization of marijuana, I just suggest is going to create an environment where police will actually be able to go out and address the real crime.
Very sly, Gary Johnson. I like what he says, but his answer to Hannity's question is in what he doesn't say. Conservatives seem to want libertarians like Johnson to try to pick apart their arguments about the harmfulness of marijuana, and I'm sure he could—not that they'd listen—but he wants them to realize they're completely missing the point. His "controversial position" is not that marijuana is harmless, but that we should re-evaluate our approach to it, because what we're doing now is:
  1. Wasting money.
  2. Wasting police resources.
  3. Doing nothing to lessen its popularity.
Conservatives are more than welcome to argue with that, but they don't. Maybe, on some level, they know they can't. Instead, they change the subject to an argument they can win, or at least play to a draw: Drugs are bad for you.

I can't say I have much confidence in Gary Johnson's ability to re-focus the debate—especially if Sean Hannity is any indication (and it kind of seems like he is)—but at least he's trying.

1. Former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson, Wisconsin Senator-elect Ron Johnson, Miami Vice star Don Johnson, overpaid Atlanta Hawks guard Joe Johnson, 17th President of the United States Andrew Johnson, The Economist's language blog: Johnson…I can barely keep it all straight. Chad Ochocinco looks more brilliant every day.
2. I don't even need to define that, do I? I hope it catches on—it could be useful in a wide variety of situations:
— "Sorry, what were you saying? I got distracted. Some jackass just hannitied me in traffic."
— "When Peterson broke into the secondary it looked like he had a clear path to the end zone, but he was hannitied just outside the 10-yard-line. What an outstanding defensive play."
— "Objection, your honor. Opposing counsel is hannitying the witness."
— "Dude, I was so close to hooking up with this chick last night, but her ex-boyfriend showed up and hannitied me!"

1 comment:

  1. Insightful article, Johnson is imminently reasonable and also one of my favorite republicans. However, expecting Hannity to do anything other than pursue his economic and demagogic ends is plainly unreasonable.