When George McGovern died, aged 90, two weeks before the last general election, the obituaries rightly praised his long and fitfully distinguished record as a U.S. representative and senator, his years of military service, his plucky presidential campaign against Richard Nixon, and his principled opposition to the Vietnam War, among other such causes. Unlike the more certifiable of his supporters, McGovern never dabbled much in America-bashing or class envy, and having listened to him speak on the stump for close to an hour, in Seattle in April 1972, I can remember but one reference to “our brave men fighting overseas in a campaign this administration has needlessly drawn out into a miserable litany of human wreckage and the darkening of our American ideals.” Whether he ever believed Nixon had cynically prolonged the war in Southeast Asia is debatable. The sight of the young speechwriter, and future federal judge, Dick Stearns at the side of the podium mouthing the words rather suggested that these were not McGovern’s own precise thoughts. It was regrettable that the candidate never quite recovered from the Eagleton affair—McGovern’s original choice as running mate had once received electroshock treatment for depression—which became like The Phantom of the Opera: a show that never closes. Later, of course, there was the matter of the hand grenade lobbed into the ring by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. “According to one liberal Senator,” Novak wrote in May 1972,
the Democratic candidate’s popularity is based on public ignorance of his position . . . “The people don’t know McGovern is for amnesty, abortion, and legalization of pot,” the Senator remarked. “Once Middle America—Catholic Middle America, in particular—finds this out, he’s dead.”
Novak then labeled McGovern the “triple A” candidate, who backed “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” Somehow it only adds to the poignancy of the story to have learned some 35 years later that the anonymous source in question was none other than Thomas Eagleton.
I was thinking about all this on the morning of November 7 when, having gone to bed the evening before in the state of Washington, I awoke to find myself apparently in the Netherlands. Overnight, my fellow electors had passed a measure to decriminalize possession by any adult of an ounce or less of marijuana. Local prosecutors and police lost no time in announcing an amnesty for those currently awaiting trial or sentencing on “simple possession” charges. In King County, Dan Satterberg of the prosecutor’s office said authorities would “dismiss about 50 pending criminal charges,” and not file charges in another 135 cases. Law enforcement was apparently happy to fall in with the spirit of the pro-pot initiative even before it could formally be added to the statute book. Said Satterberg,
I think when the people voted to change the policy, they weren’t focused on when the effective date of the new policy would be. They spoke loudly and clearly that we should not treat use of reasonable amounts of marijuana as an offense.
(Far from the implications of “loudly and clearly,” a full 39 percent of the total state electorate, and a reported 67-70 percent of its non-metro-Seattle residents, voted against the measure.)
In the same effusive mood, the Seattle police and King County sheriff’s departments also announced that, with immediate effect, they would no longer arrest people for “ownership or enjoyment [of] small amounts” of the drug, thus freeing up much-needed resources to patrol the streets against outbreaks of racial insensitivity, gender bias, homophobia, and other breaches of the moral consensus, for which no statute of limitation was envisaged. In Snohomish County, prosecutor Mark Roe experienced such a powerful desire to dispense mercy that he actually issued a preemptive amnesty for any cases of soft narcotics for recreational use. All criminal proceedings arising were to be put “on hold” during the election campaign, Rose announced, before remarking that enforcement of the existing drug laws was a “matter of discussion” between him and his staff. “It simply hasn’t been a big part of our work,” he said.
Even before November’s vote, the state of Washington had long enjoyed a reputation for being one of the more weed-friendly places in the country. Each summer, Seattle plays host to what the organizers proudly call “the world’s largest pot rally,” Hempfest, a fun-filled carnival of uninhibited toking and amplified rock music that inevitably spills over from its designated park to the surrounding streets, to much local public merriment. Originally billed in 1991 as the Washington Hemp Expo, the first event attracted some 600 stoners, and a staff that consisted of members of the “Amerika Peace Heathen Community Action Group.” According to the Seattle Times, “There was no way to know that the group was sowing the seeds that would someday make Pacific Northwest history and sensationally turn into the most popular cannabis-themed event in the world.” With due respect to the Times, the fact that more children of Vietnam and Watergate stumble into the welcoming haze of a local mini-Woodstock each August doesn’t strike me as news, sensational or otherwise. It would strike me as news if fewer of them did so. Last year, Hempfest attracted 315,000 visitors over three days. It has a board of directors, offices, a mission statement, and the like; if you go to Hempfest you’ll be greeted by a steward, who might possibly be bearded and/or wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, and admitted to a friendly-seeming kibbutz patrolled by uniformed Seattle police officers—the same guardians of law and order who peddle happily around the downtown streets on bikes, nipping at the teats of juice bottles with a straw bolted to one side and a lewd endorsement from Harry Potter gummed to the other, the females among them always elaborately made up with that glazed, slightly artificial look you used to get on Dallas, and who commissioned a sculpture of a pig outside their own headquarters. At some stage in the Hempfest festivities, the former chief of police Norm Stamper routinely climbs on stage to issue a few greeting-card pleas for world peace, and to wish everyone a smokin’ day. Stamper’s preferred uniform of chunky fisherman’s sweater and jeans while in office wasn’t to my taste, but I accept that he strikes many people as the real thing. These days the Seattle force evidently find it necessary to spend much of their working life mouthing platitudes, conforming to codes, parroting mission statements, or otherwise soothing perceived hurt sensibilities. They have no known interest in actively enforcing the city’s criminal laws, at least as judged by the blind eye they turn to Hempfest and the like. Smoking or distributing nonmedical marijuana in this state before November 2012 cannot be called legal if every preexisting statute book defines it as a criminal offense. But that may just be me. I’ve always been a literalist in these matters. It seems to be a cherished part of what could loosely be called the liberal philosophy of life to see oneself as constantly fighting a plucky rearguard action against the vast, tyrannical forces of cultural conservatism in all its forms. But in matters of pot, it rather appears the proponents of Initiative 502 were pushing at an open door.
Moving further down the “Triple A” list attributed to Senator McGovern, as disseminated by his one-time running mate, it perhaps comes as no surprise to note that the voters and legislators of this state continue to misappropriate the word immigrant, one that owes its value to generations of primarily quiet, hard-working Europeans who made America a byword for efficiency, but which increasingly has come to denote “criminal.” The outgoing governor of Washington, “Chris” Gregoire, made it her business to push for the passage of State Bill 5168. This reduced the maximum penalty for “gross violations of the existing immigration code” from 365 days to 364 days, thus removing the stigma of “aggravated felon” status, and likely deportation, in such cases. Meanwhile, the legislature’s amendment to S.B. 5023 specifically prohibits the creation of a “two-tier driver’s permit system, which would require applicants to provide proof of citizenship, Social Security numbers, or command of the English language.” If you happen to be in Washington, are aged 17 or over, can pass the not-demanding traffic-safety test and sign your application with an X, the state will happily issue you a license valid as photo ID anywhere you go. (That would specifically include the local marijuana-supply outlet.) It is surely another proud achievement of America’s most ideologically pristine western outpost to have defeated House Bill 1272, which had sought to “require the Employment Security Department to verify that workers referred to employers are duly authorized to be in the United States.” No such churlish formality is now necessary.
As a snapshot of Washington state’s consensus view on abortion, we need look no further than the doomed campaign of Republican congressional candidate John Koster. Koster made a number of interesting proposals regarding the U.S. Department of Education and the IRS, both of which he felt we could well do without. He also spoke at some length on the state’s fiscal crisis, and on voters’ widespread skepticism of foreign entanglements post-Afghanistan and Libya. For Koster, Hippocrates is a better guide to foreign policy than Thucydides. First do no harm, he appeared to say, pointing to Iraq.
But none of Koster’s nuanced and persuasively put views on the role of the United States overseas, or on the state’s proper relationship with its citizens, moved the Washington electorate as much as his remarks on the rights of an unborn child. As the Seattle Times noted, barely containing its note of outrage,
This man worked on several pieces of legislation [to] limit abortion rights when he was a state legislator in the 1990s. He co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed insurance companies not to cover terminations, for example, and supported more strict parental notification laws.
From there it was but a short step for Koster’s opponents to depict him as not just mistaken, but morally faulty. His campaign became a proxy for a typically robust rehearsal of the abortion debate, and dwelt as much on the mechanics as it did on the ethics of the issue. Koster’s critics ran incessant television ads in which a parade of OB/GYN doctors fretted that the candidate was “too extreme” and “ignorant of the ramifications and the seriousness of women’s reproductive issues” when he suggested that insurance companies might wish to consider whether or not to cover “a woman’s right to choose” in each and every instance. A secretly taped private remark of Koster suggesting that “rape is horrendous, [but] then taking the life of an innocent child that may be a consequence of this crime—how does that make it better?” was further grist for the mill. “It bothers me to hear him say it,” Koster’s Democratic opponent, a Microsoft millionaire named Suzan DelBene, remarked. “The way he approaches the issue and the policy conclusions he comes to, it just reflects the serious problem we have when politicians are trying to dictate women’s health care decisions.” This is what the “abortion debate” has come to in my state. We’ve become a land all but denuded of politicians who might dare to challenge the consensus. Our newspapers seem disgusted at the idea of pro-life readers, doing all they can to shake them off. They run endless stories and editorials about such people being “fundamentalists,” or—as if there could be anything worse—“receiving their views from God.” Koster was roundly mocked when, in his gracious concession statement to DelBene, he concluded,
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people—for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God, our savior. 1 Timothy 2:1-5.
“We disagree with Koster on all social issues,” the Seattle Times wrote, with some understatement.
Washington voters also left in place an initiative originally passed in 2008 that allows physicians to write prescriptions for lethal doses of drugs for individuals who in their opinion have less than six months to live. The measure applies to any patient over the age of 18 who can produce an accepted form of state ID—the aforementioned driver’s license, for example. Its proponents have characterized the law as providing “death with dignity,” an alliterative slogan both the Times and the producers of souvenir T-shirts and bumper stickers have been happy to reproduce. “It’s not euthanasia because that implies action by a doctor to end a patient’s life,” says Terry Barnett, president of the Washington branch of the Compassion & Choices advocacy group. “Nor is it suicide, because people who choose this form of aid are not choosing to end their lives . . . It’s about making an informed decision to end needless suffering.” What is it about liberals and death? It is interesting how the most outrageous acts are now presented to us as being entirely in our own interest. We can only await the logical next step of passage of some eugenics law designed finally to eradicate those human hereditary traits thought inimical by the elite.
Rounding off the formal estrangement of Washington state and any form of cultural sanity as expressed at the polls, the voters also passed (53.46-46.54 percent) Referendum 74—the “same-sex marriage” initiative. It’s perhaps redundant to note that in the weeks before the election the news media became a loud and unrelenting chorus on the subject. Sometimes we were told that to oppose R-74 was an elitist position, and that to do so was, in the words of the Seattle Weekly, “to risk being seen as socially archaic” (a risk I personally find I am more and more willing to take). At other times the press seemed to change tack and appeal to the hopeless squares among us on our own terms. “Allowing same-sex couples to marry is about love, commitment and families,” the Times informed us.
Respect for those basic values, and those who want to formally [sic] embrace them with a public and legal covenant of marriage, runs deep in Washington state. Foes of Referendum 74 know they lose badly in a straightforward assessment of the issue . . . [Opponents] invent legalistic contrivances that foresee lawsuits, business difficulties and make-believe invasions of personal rights. The template is virtually unchanged from the imagined horrors of desegregation in the Deep South.
Really? Or could it be that the heart of the R-74 debate wasn’t so much about the ambitions of uptight conservatives to impose their beliefs on others, and more about a relatively small number of malcontents seeking to force their new definition of marriage on the rest of us? The Times consistently dismissed religious objections to R-74, because “Christians have no right to prevent people from living their own lives.” It saw nothing illiberal, though, in a well-funded and politically motivated group lobbying to hijack a sacred institution that owes its definition to centuries of mainly Christian tradition in this country. Somehow, that does not seem very “inclusive” to me.
Since this state is often held up as being at the forefront of a permanent revolution against the hated ancien régime, it’s tempting to speculate where this sort of compulsory liberalism might take us next. Votes for felons? Drivers’ licenses for 13-year-olds? A punitive state income tax for those deemed to be “super-wealthy,” a term to be defined by the electorate? Additional civil and criminal penalties for those convicted of offenses against “minority groups, those of differently chosen sexual or gender preferences, and others historically discriminated against”? The payment of reparations to Native Americans in “sincere regret of crimes perpetrated against their people”? Further decriminalization of narcotics? The adoption of Fidel Castro as the honorary state governor? OK, I made the last one up, but there are movements today actively agitating for all the others. So we continue our long process of committing cultural suicide by installments. It will not be long before we all walk among the ruins of what we have destroyed. Each successive election brings us closer to the progressive ideal of stoned immigrant teenage couples of random sex who drive their cars through red lights on their way to the abortion clinic, and pause to pull the plug on Granny on the way home, and as it does so our public schools and local police stations are being closed, our streets go unrepaired, and, thanks to the latest unresolved strike, the garbage festers outside our homes in scenes of medieval squalor. All of the mainstream political parties have demonstrated their willingness to hire themselves out to whichever minority interest groups they feel obliged to pander to at election time. As a people, we now appear to prefer the social-worker, as opposed to the business-model, school of government, in which many ordinary citizens’ lives are affected by the rights afforded to a relative few. Those of us who live in America’s most remorselessly progressive state have seen the future, and it doesn’t work.
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