Anthony Seldon

The UK debate over cannabis is rolling along, and as ever the conjunction of skunk and kids is the focus for some truly brainless generalisations.

Anthony Seldon, the biographer of Blair who recently introduced “Happiness Classes” to the public school he heads, has popped up in the news saying that drugs are “too sinister” to tolerate. He goes on:

They are so evil, massively evil – even cannabis. … I heard the other day about an adult who smoked a joint—his first joint—and he lost his mind for six months. … You can just be unlucky. You can have this predisposition which can tip you into psychotic disorder and malfunction which can be cataclysmic and from which some people can never recover their baseline sanity.

BBC News, 4/10/07

The foolish demonisation of drugs by authorities is dangerous because drugs are simply not 100% dangerous (let alone “massively evil”). Once kids discover there are pleasures and treasures in drug use, they more often than not reject the wild warnings of their elders—including any sane cautionary notes.

I wonder whether, in people like Seldon, who seems to be reacting against the “lenient” or “soft” attitudes of recent times, we are at least partially seeing a rebound effect going the other way. Even though cannabis, in itself, is drastically less dangerous than portrayed by the media and government, are people like Seldon reacting to the excesses of pro-cannabis campaigners? Maybe they once questioned the authorities’ line on it, but in the face of seeing real problems involving the drug, they turn away from the idea that “cannabis is harmless” all-too-drastically, swinging back to the Manichean rhetoric of unthinking tabloids.

An interesting thought, maybe. But it doesn’t seem to hold much water. For one thing, the basic point about demonisation by the powers-that-be looks at the dynamics of trust between adults and children, and the obvious damage done to that dynamic if adults deceive kids (and maybe themselves) about life’s dangers. Seldon’s an adult, not a kid. He should be able to take any over-enthused declarations of cannabis’ harmlessness with a pinch of salt to keep a balanced view. Instead, he’s ranting like an ill-informed bigot.

There’s an important distinction to be made here, and that is that Seldon’s prime concern is the use of cannabis at school by pupils. For adults, once the horrors of the black market are removed, it’s largely a victimless act; any problems it entails are generally medical or mental health issues to be treated appropriately. For kids, of course, drug use should be strongly discouraged.

But Seldon’s rhetoric—as with many like him—casually veers towards a more general social condemnation, with the ridiculous background logic that adults should be barred from doing what is dangerous for kids to do.

There’s some very interesting and admirable thinking in some of Seldon’s views. He favours a more rounded approach to education. He “wants to end the culture of exam results, league tables and narrow academic learning”; he believes “we all have seven intelligences, and schools focus on only two: linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence, ‘and even those we do in a dull, unimaginative way’. The other intelligences—personal, social, artistic, physical, spiritual/moral—are largely neglected.” His “Happiness Classes” seem a little glib from the outside, but they’re surely a step towards truly paying attention to what education should be to encourage a good, rather than merely functional and prosperous, life.

But for all his challenges to the educational system, he’s content to leave other basic mistakes of our status quo in place, and nurture them.

What is the point of schools if they do not help children to learn how to live their lives to the full, how to enjoy themselves and be happy, and how to live intelligently? Drugs are not intelligent living. Alcohol is part of intelligent life for many, and with older school children the art is to help them to realise that drink, properly used, can be a significant enhancement to life. With drugs, there is no half-way position. Everyone—government, the media and schools—needs to give the same message: “No.”

The Independent, 15/4/07

The preposterous nature of his position is pretty clear from these statements. If he’s intent on overturning received wisdom in enlarging and enriching our concept of education, why would he slavishly align with our culture’s silly notion that, approached sensibly, alcohol can enhance life, but that other drugs are impossible to approach sensibly, or that they fundamentally degrade rather than potentially enhance life?

Of course it’s difficult to approach drugs other than alcohol sensibly when they’re illegal and are talked about in the way Seldon chooses to. This is a tricky conundrum; but it’s not one that will go away by ignoring it. On the contrary, just pushing it away will only empower it to drag us further in.

Are there any other reasons why Seldon might have a bee in his bonnet about cannabis?

I had a very bad experience when I was 18. I don’t want to talk about it. I’ve been too nervous, too aware of the fragile state of my own mental equilibrium to want to put an unknown chemical into my head.

Education Guardian, 29/5/07

I never like reductionism, pinning a complex issue on a single cause. To say Seldon’s position stems entirely from his own inability to negotiate the changes to consciousness that cannabis induces would be as silly as his belief that cannabis was the single significant causative factor in an adult allegedly losing their mind for six months. But his admission casts a little doubt on his objectivity in the matter.

He has some valid objections to cannabis:

One reason I have always loathed cannabis is it makes people so boring. Not boring to themselves maybe, but boring to others. The drug induces apathy, self-centredness and a lack of engagement with others and the world at large. It is the very opposite of what true life is all about.

The Independent, 15/4/07

Well, Jello Biafra had pretty much the same abhorrence of stoner culture (which only bolstered the strength and honesty of his pro-legalization position). It’s hard to deny that excessive cannabis use can take the shine out of someone.

But… boring, apathetic, self-centered, unengaged with the world at large? Ignoring for a moment the vibrant, life-affirming, joyous and even religious experiences that cannabis can trigger in the right setting, ask yourself: do these negative qualities strike you as exclusive to cannabis users? Do they not strike you as a pretty good summary of the worst aspects of advanced consumerist societies? Could cannabis use be a mild and insignificant exaggerator of what is fostered by the very mainstream of our culture? Could—shock fucking horror—illegal drugs be being assigned the role of scapegoat here, easier to point the finger at than the more challenging, prevalent and destructive dangers of capitalism’s disintegration of community, social responsibility and ecological health?

It would be a little hypocritical of me to move straight from decrying “easy finger-pointing” to looking at Seldon’s father, the deeply influential economist Arthur Seldon. But it’s interesting that Seldon’s father, joint founder president of the free-market think tank The Institute of Economic Affairs, “was one of a small band who, in effect, launched what eventually came to be known as the Thatcherite revolution.” (Guardian obituary) The increasing social inequity and disintegration fostered by Thatcherism, and its development and mutation in Blair’s policies has created a depressing and debilitating cultural atmosphere. I’m not surprised that expanding your consciousness in such circumstances can put some fragile people at risk of psychosis.

I welcome the highlighting of the downsides of drugs. If Seldon embraced the wider context of the problems being faced as we address “the drugs issue”, he might be a productive part of the debate rather than a cartoonish demagogue.

By the way, for any regular readers, I’ll hopefully be back to more frequent posts soon. A revamped, and a book of my essays, are imminent—watch this space!