There’s an old magazine from where I hail called Arizona Highways – for decades it has captured in pictures and stories the character of my indomitable state, my home. A country really – deserts and forests and lakes and mountains. Megacities and old western towns. From Scottsdale and her ultra-rich to Tombstone, as famous as Timbuktu albeit for different reasons. Didn’t Tocqueville call America a land of “many little nations” each attending to their own affairs under an overarching umbrella for the purposes of security and trade? Arizona is the best representation of this idea – because we don’t need anybody else, we grew strong by being good and kind and smart; working hard under the sun and going home to family. We get this from the land – in Arizona the skies are wide and the deserts are vast and hot and dangerous and the animals mostly poisonous or fanged; it is not America for beginners, like is say New York or San Diego where the snowflakes like to flit. We are America for those serious about knowing her; loving her.
My writing begins so often with the land, doesn’t it? We are all products of our lands, they shape us and define us: interpreting our pasts and determining our futures – Virunga forest, the Nile and Niger and Orinoco rivers, the Andes or the Rockies or the Alps; shaping the destinies of millennia. I used to drive America a lot – as a missionary kid. We were dependent upon the financial support of churches, sprinkled across America from Altoona to Minot, from Quartzsite to Gallup and beyond. In our rented car, every four years, itinerant salespeople hawking stories of God’s work in foreign lands, I got to know my country. This is why I write so often about the landscape of America – like Tolkien who always returned to his pristine ‘shire’; the wide open expanses that I have known give me confidence and a sense of myself and where I belong. I write anchored by rolling hills and deep forests – small towns and highway diners and scenic lookouts that checker our vast free spaces. That’s the America I’ve wanted to write about, to remember – to return to.
I have tried to not write about the drugs.
Who wants to do that? Better about opportunity or success or diversity – nature and faith and family, those are the things that should capture America’s headlines – not pills and needles and vacant eyes staring from park benches in the rain. Not mumbled transactions under decaying bridges or inside dilapidated houses; not stories of overdoses and rehab centers. Of futures forfeit and lives curtailed.
Yet try as I might I’ve found myself brought back to this – which seems like it could be the defining issue of America in our times; even in my Arizona, where in Gila county the death rates from opioids reached 20 per 100,000. A rotting cancer that is eating out the soul of our tired republic.
Following on from President Trump’s powerful inauguration speech, Christopher Caldwell has written a masterful essay in “First Things” titled “American Carnage: The New Landscape of Opioid Addiction”. Carnage, there is no other word.
Why is it always drugs? For my whole life I’ve been hearing about drugs. “Don’t do crack,” in the 80s. “Don’t do heroine” and “don’t do pot” and “don’t do meth” (no, I never did any of them – how many of you can say the same?). Now its opioids that have the spotlight – and its worse, so very very much worse. America has a prescription drug problem. “Chronic pain” is now no longer a symptom, but an infirmity to be treated (a fifth vital sign, requiring only patient assertion to command a doctor’s action). Consequently with 5% of the global population, we use 80% of its prescription drugs; and 30% of adult Americans are on some sort of pain drug. Newer, cheaper opioids like oxycodone and fentanyl make their way into the needles of the junkies – more dangerous because the “high” takes you to death’s door – and often beyond. 1.5 overdose deaths per 100,000 in the 1970s has become more than 40 in West Virginia. There are now more drug deaths in America – 52,000 – than car accidents and far more, four times more than gun related deaths. In 2016 life expectance in the United States fell, for the first time since 1993 – the height of the AIDS epidemic.
How is it possible we have arrived here? We, who twice defeated the British? Who overcame the French and the Spanish; who fought two world wars? Who in the 20th century saved humanity not once, not twice but three times? Who gave mankind the telephone, the light bulb, the car, the airplane, the internet, the computer, and space travel? Who created an uncommon prosperity from ungodly acts of creation that lasted – not one generation or two but twenty or more and counting? Who built the United Nations, gave the world peace and brotherly love and served as the patron of the church, for two hundred years sending missionaries into the darkness with the word of God and the love of Jesus?
Drugs. Is this how we want that story to end? President Bill Clinton talks often about this epidemic; “The real cause is, they are dying of a broken heart,” he is wont to say. That may be true, but if that’s the case, I ask you, who broke their heart? Is it perhaps you, or me, who wandered off – who brushed aside these people as “clingers” or “deplorables” in order to ignore them? We, who like to talk more about Lima than Littleton, is it our fault?
And if we are after all the culprit, what will we do about it?
***I’ve decided to write about this issue in a few pieces. Stay tuned for the next – which will probably feature Hollywood, which has gone from “Weeds” to “Breaking Bad”.