Back in the days of my misspent youth, addiction referred to a self-destructive dependency on psychoactive, habit-forming drugs like heroin and alcohol. But as with so many words in this hyped up era, the meaning expanded to include, in addition to substances, a variety of behaviors, notably sex and gambling. Then the concept took on a positive tangent with the publication of William Glasser’s book, “Positive Addiction.” Glasser recommended the practices of meditation and distance running, claiming they could produce a euphoric, life-enhancing alteration of consciousness.
Speaking from experience as one who has pursued his share of serial passions, including distance running, chess, and photography, I am prepared to say that the line between a positive and negative addiction can be very fine; and it is quite possible, depending on circumstances, to cross the line from positive to negative, as I did more than once. I would not be surprised to learn that most all addictions, positive as well as negative, will be found to have common neurochemical causes at the level of the brain. The research seems to be trending that way. After all, virtually every experience alters the brain; and repeated experiences that activate reward circuits appear to change the brain in ways that lead to the compulsive behaviors we label addictions. Of course it’s more complicated than that, which means I will have to revisit the subject very soon.
Junkie is a closely related informal term that can refer to a drug addict or, according to the dictionary, “a person with a compulsive habit or obsessive dependency on something.” As in political junkie. By the way, in case you’re a newer reader who has wondered what TPJ stands for, the original name of our magazine was “The Political Junkies.” When I started writing columns here, I chose a pseudonym, “Reluctant Junkie,” intended to convey the idea that my obsession with politics was forced on me rather than stemming from any abiding interest or curiosity – except possibly morbid curiosity, as depicted in this little satirical masterpiece from the Onion News Network. Anyway, for most of my life before the Bush debacle, I was pretty much happily indifferent to politics, although I always leaned left. But then came Bush-administration-induced nagging paranoia. I mean, what thinking person who valued constitutional democracy would not have been alarmed by the machinations and serial misconduct of that organized crime syndicate? And lest you forget, “Bush’s Brain,” Karl Rove, is still out there, scheming with other members of the vast, right-wing conspiracy to bring about the utter destruction of all remaining progressive values.
So I became a reluctant political junkie about ten years ago. My addiction/obsession was mostly involuntary, bringing few satisfactions until I started writing a column for The Political Junkies that gave me a forum where I could express my thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations and general loathing for most things political. Then Obama was elected, which still ranks as one of the most memorable and happiest nights of my life – it’s hard to beat the combination of relief and schadenfreude! But my happiness was, as I feared at the time, destined to be fleeting, soon to be replaced by my default lesser-of-evils mode, which is where I’m stuck now. I keep saying this is a Paul Revere moment, and I want to ride through the streets shouting, “Wake up and smell the theocratic fascism brewing on the right; it’s time to take the offensive rather than remaining mired in the sickening, self-defeating appeasement of the past three years.” This is no time for finesse: a near-critical mass of Americans are ready to wage an epic struggle, but they have to be inspired. Inspired by what? How about something along the lines of Obama’s “The Audacity of Hope”? Certainly not futile bipartisan efforts which elicit nothing but contempt from the right-wing warriors.
Okay, that’s enough damn politics for a while. And considering that I’m more than halfway through this column, it’s time to get to the point and fess up about my addiction. Besides, there will be many opportunities in the coming months to rant about politics. Soon we won’t be able to escape the lies, non sequiturs and ignorance of another presidential campaign. So let me talk about my current addiction, which inspired my new pseudonym, “Science Junkie”:
I am addicted to reality.
I know it’s a stretch, but don’t laugh just yet. Strange though it may sound, reality needs defenders. So I shamelessly used the addiction shtick to call attention to the fact that despite the proliferation of “reality” shows on TV, Americans seem less committed to accepting it than at any time in my memory. Looking out across this vast cultural wasteland, I see more groups forming enclaves of ideology, setting up online, fact-free zones where they congregate like holy rollers reaffirming their bizarre dogmas, ignoring or denying all contrary evidence. And like religious fanatics, they are turning to vicious demonizing of scientists and other rational experts who reject their claims on the basis of competent science. The anti-vaccination movement is a particularly pernicious case in point, but these days any group with sufficient resources can make outrageously false claims with confidence things will play out to their advantage.
A major reason they get away with it is because of the profit-driven complicity of a mainstream news media that has abdicated its responsibility to pursue facts that might lower ratings or prove embarrassing to the wrong people. Even when convincing refutations of falsehoods are published, they rarely attract enough interest to even begin to reverse the advantages already gained by the charlatans and the sincerely deluded. So while corrupted news sources are pandering to corporate greed and the lowest common denominator, there is a highly effective and no doubt lucrative industry out there utilizing all the proven artifices of mass persuasion. And we are about to be subjected to a deluge of the very worst of it as the political season ramps up. But the sorry truth is it doesn’t take that much to persuade low-information voters who are complete strangers to critical-thinking skills. This is certainly not what Thomas Jefferson envisioned.
Anyway, that’s the reality I see every day. And because I’m addicted to it, I can’t look the other way or pretend things are okay or are going to get better. The tabloid mentality prevails far and wide, and the discourse – what little there is – sounds more like The Jerry Springer show than anything approaching civilized debate. I’d bet Jefferson would be rolling in his grave, if he could.
So while I facetiously call myself a reality addict and a science junkie, those labels are not far from the truth. On the other end of the spectrum, I know and read about lots of people who give the impression that they are attracted to pseudoscience and other forms of woo because they are unscientific. And they’re not all dolts: many fairly bright individuals seem to take perverse pleasure in rejecting or opposing the findings of scientific “elites.” I have to think Republicans bear much of the responsibility for this. If so, I’m sure they’re proud of it.
Next time: a look at some of the worst reality deniers.