The River of Humanity

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Commuters cry, “Beware! Beware!
“The human mass at Station Square!
“The shuffling feet
“Where two lines meet
“And sullen souls despair!”

If you’ve spent time in Georgia’s capital city Tbilisi (formerly known as Tiflis) you’ll probably recognise the reference. Tbilisi has two metro lines that meet at Station Square station. Here at rush hour there can be a traffic jam of human flesh as streams of passengers squeeze past and through one another to change lines or escape into the open air. The photo alongside does scant justice to the crush that I was in a few days ago.

I confess to getting a kick out of commuting by metro or subway or underground. I feel part of something: The River of Humanity. A participant, not a spectator. My body is a tiny, tiny fragment, but the river is nevertheless changed by my being there.

There’s probably something Freudian about it too. One plunges into a dark hole, trusting that the millions of tons of rock and soil above one’s head will stay in place; then, in a re-enactment of nativity, one bursts forth into a sunlit world where oxygen and coffee shops abound and all is easeful.

Here in Tbilisi’s metro I am struck by the tolerance and mutual respect I feel around me. Several people (myself included) missed a train the other day by waiting for a lady to manoeuvre her pushchair into a crowded carriage. No-one pushed ahead, no-one complained.

And when another lady forced her way along the wall of a hugely crowded tunnel, against the flow, shouting what sounded like “Why! Why! Why!” people smiled good-naturedly. She had her reasons. Beggars position themselves along the same wall, obstructing the flow, and they are accepted as just a few more water molecules in the river, albeit static ones.

I’d like to say that by being part of The Human River twice a day I’m gaining a better understanding of my fellow-humans. But – and now we get to the stroppy bit – I do not understand why some people are attracted to substances and activities that they know are designed to enslave them by way of addiction. Why, why, why?!

The ads reproduced here are all from today’s online edition of the Sydney Morning Herald.

AddictGame3

The New Opium War

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There are episodes in British history that we’d all rather forget. The two great nineteenth century assaults on Chinese sovereignty are on that list. Dubbed the Opium Wars, their purpose was to open China up to foreign trade – especially with the British and especially for opium imports from British India.

The First Opium War (1839-42) went well for the British – they got Hong Kong for example – so, flushed with the success of the Crimean War, they went back for seconds in 1856.

Nowadays we are appalled at the idea of a powerful state forcing a weaker one to allow it free rein to lure people into lives of wretched addiction, but at that time it was just a matter of free trade. And foreigners didn’t count for much anyway.

I’m struck by (and stroppy about) a modern parallel. An Australian casino company called Crown has built big glittery casinos in Macau and Australia, and at the centre of its business model is the luring of rich Chinese to its tables. They are variously called ‘whales’ and ‘VIPs’. Gambling in mainland China is illegal, as is soliciting custom on behalf of gambling enterprises. So Crown operates behind a façade:

“Selling gambling?! Perish the thought! We’re just selling nice holidays at luxurious resorts whose many attractions happen to include a little casino or two.”

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are neither stupid nor infinitely patient. They know exactly what’s going on, including the use of offshore casinos by corrupt officials and businesspeople to launder dirty money. They fired warning shots which included the rounding up of some smaller fry from South Korea – a device known in China as ‘killing the chicken in front of the monkey’ – and then decided they’d had enough. A bunch of Crown employees, Chinese and Australian, were arrested.

Good on you, Xi Jinping, I say. I still disapprove of your lawless actions in the South China Sea and your suppression of freedom of expression in Hong Kong and on the mainland, but you can hammer Crown all you like.

Victims or Criminals?

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I heard a talk on ABC Radio National this morning. I missed the start and didn’t hear her name, but she lost both her legs – in an accident or an attack, I don’t know which – and I think she said she’d once been voted Australian of the Year. Anyway, whoever she was, I particularly liked something she said: “I decided to be a survivor, not a victim.”

I liked that because victimhood is very popular these days, to the extent that there are hardly enough ordinary people left to provide succour and subsidies to all the victims. This was in my mind when I opened the online version of the today’s Adelaide Advertiser (Rupert Murdoch’s people having failed to deliver the paper version yet again!) and saw this:

icevictims

How can someone who buys and consumes ‘ice’, an illegal substance known to be harmful both to the individual consumer and to society at large, be a victim?! For crying out loud, that person is a criminal, a reprobate and an enemy of the people!

Victims and Criminals

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A young man died at the electronic music festival recently. The cause of death? Illicit drugs, which are said to be commonly available at such festivals. What makes me stroppy? His family are describing him as a victim and blaming the festival organisers for his death.

Unless he was held down and forced to swallow pills, or an attacker forcibly injected him, he was not a victim. He was a criminal*. And if festival organisers were required to guarantee the safety of every patron who chooses to indulge in dangerous or illegal activities, I suspect the ticket prices would be much higher than they are.

What makes me even stroppier is that the courts seem to put drug dealing on a par with shoplifting. Three young women who were caught selling ecstasy tablets at a nightclub were given 14-month suspended sentences plus 200 hours of community service. One of them was let off the community service because she was pregnant! These people are beyond any reasonable doubt serious criminals and should be punished accordingly.

* Disclaimer: I’m not a lawyer and I don’t know if using the drug that this young man used is a criminal offence in Australia. I’m using the word ‘criminal’ in a non-legal way to mean ‘perpetrator of something that is so morally reprehensible, so socially damaging and so stupid that it ought to be a criminal offence’.

Unintended Consequences

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I have just read a depressing article by Chris McGreal in the Guardian Weekly.  It’s headed ‘Beattyville: abandoned by coal, swallowed by drugs’ and describes the state of impoverishment and demoralisation that followed the closure of coal mines and other industries in Kentucky.

My stroppiness index rose when I read about the ‘pop’ scam, which works as follows. Supermarkets sell discounted cola to poor people, often for food stamps. The poor people sell the cola to smaller shops, cheaply enough to allow for resale at normal prices, and use the money to buy drugs – in particular an addictive pain-reliever called OxyContin that is supposed to be available only on prescription.

Here is a classic case of unintended consequences, though I’m not sure how anyone administering the food stamps programme could have confused fizzy drinks with food.  I’m not sure what conclusion to draw.  Perhaps it’s that no matter how well-intentioned a policy may be, and no matter how carefully it is crafted, people will find a way to subvert it, turn good to bad, and make poor people poorer still.

As it happens much of my recently published opus, The Eeks Trilogy, is about unintended consequences in the realms of robotics, human relationships and space colonisation.

Mental Health

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Here we are at the start of Mental Health Week, and I read in my morning newspaper that “one in seven children and young people experienced a mental disorder in the previous 12 months.” Then on the radio I heard that the same proportion of adults had suffered anxiety disorders in the same period.

How can this be?! If any mental condition is as common as that, how can we call it a ‘disorder’? Surely we’re defining as disorderly aspects of normal human experience. Surely we’re setting the bar too low and steering people into treatment who don’t belong there.

This is not an original thought, of course. Medicalising normal human states is an international sport for Big Pharma. The rest of us are free to laugh at it and carry on with our messy lives, balancing sadness with joy, anxiety with hope.

Actually, with the world in its present state, I’d say that if anyone is not experiencing extreme anxiety they are by definition suffering a mental disorder.

Ice Epidemic

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There seem to be news stories every day about the damage being done by meth­amphetamine (‘ice’) in Australia. Personally, I cannot understand why any sane person would knowingly take their first dose, its effects and its addictive properties being so well-known.

But within the past few days I heard that someone I know has done just this. He’s married with a young child and another on the way. He’s a skilled tradesman, employed full-time and well-paid until he was made redundant. To overcome his boredom – or so I have been told by a third party – he decided to step into the dark, tragic world of ‘ice’.

The outcome is predictable. His addiction will drive him and his family into poverty. He will become unemployable. He will become abusive toward his wife, and perhaps to his children. Eventually his wife will leave him. She will have to work full-time to support herself and her children. Her mother will have to abandon her own part-time job to look after the children.

Perhaps things will not work out as badly as this, but the risk is there. The urge to self-destruction, visiting great suffering on family and friends, seems to lurk in many hearts. I just don’t get it.

My anger is directed equally to those to make and sell this vile product and to those who become its willing slaves. And yet the addicts are often portrayed as victims. I don’t get that either. There would be no supply without demand. How can the willing buyer be less culpable than the willing seller?

The same inconsistency applies to other products and services too. How can a people-smuggler be a criminal while his/her customers are innocent victims? How can a prostitute be a victim while his/her clients are vicious exploiters? Please explain.