¶ … Souls is a book about drug addiction and its relation to crime. It is a memoir by Michael MacDonald and it shows how both crime and drugs have brought death to his family, as they grew up in Southie, "in the all-Irish housing projects where everyone claimed to be Irish" (2). It was, according to MacDonald, the best neighborhood in the world. That, of course, was a kind of dream -- for the reality of Southie soon became known to him as it took the lives of his brothers. This paper will explore the reality that MacDonald describes in his memoir All Souls and show how it relates to the realities depicted in two essays: William J. Bennett's "Should Drugs be Legalized?" And Linda Hasselstrom's "Why One Peaceful Woman Carries a Pistol." The relation shows this: that there is no answer to the problem of drugs, guns, crime and self-preservation, unless it comes from within. From Bennett's essay, one may ask, "If drug use is legalized, would the brothers have survived?" Or, "If drug use is legalized, how would the Southie neighborhood be different -- safer or less safe?" From Hasselstrom's essay, one may ask, "Would the possession of weapons have helped the situation any in All Souls?" These questions do not have easy answers. The sad reality is just as MacDonald describes it: a haze of uncertainties in which we fail to know the best course. Indeed, it almost seems as though we cannot even tell who is really living and who is really dead, as MacDonald himself suggests (2).
The two essays by Bennett and Hasselstrom raise some interesting points in connection with the memoir. The memoir itself is full of gritty truths about drug addiction and its relation to crime. But in modern day politics we here politicians saying that the war on drugs is lost and that drugs should be legalized. We are forced to ask ourselves if doing so would help prevent the kind of loss that MacDonald describes in All Souls. I believe that it might.
Legalizing Drugs: All Souls and Bennett's Essay
Bennett makes the claim that legalizing drugs would have an adverse effect on communities and on lives. He states that "every civilized society has found it necessary to exert some form of control over mind-altering substances" (Bennett). After reading MacDonald's memoir, one cannot argue that drug use should not be controlled. The only question is this: who should control it?
Today, we look to government to control every aspect of our lives. The problem with this is that we do not accept any accountability or responsibility. Government and police are our protectors. We listen to them rather than to our conscience. We spend more time gauging what they have to say and what they might do rather than listening to the voice in our own heads. Bennett may be correct in asserting that from time immemorial civilizations have recognized the need to curb drug usage -- but they have not always used the same techniques.
What MacDonald appears to long for in All Souls is a time when Southie truly was a good neighborhood. He longs for an idyllic time: an Edenic place, where the community was made up of virtuous people. It is virtue that MacDonald seems to miss (even if he does not know it). Indeed, the lack of virtue (which is nothing more than habit that is good) seems to be one of the prime reasons his brothers fall to crime and drugs in All Souls. His family does not have the example of virtue instilled in it. MacDonald himself states: "Who needs a man in the home, I always thought, when you have the welfare office?" (33). At a young age, Michael realizes the intrusion of government in the family life: rather than realizing manly virtue from...
She'd wake us all up in a panic about the state of the house. The problem wasn't that the house was a mess, but rather that it looked like we owned too many modern conveniences for our own good" (MacDonald 33). This is the consequence of the welfare man replacing the conscience. Rather than face reality with a conscience, one is compelled to hide reality from the welfare man.
We cannot say, of course, whether legalizing drug use would have allowed MacDonald's brothers to live. It certainly seems like they would have stood a better chance at being honest about what they were doing. And honesty never seems like a bad position to take. By criminalizing drugs as Bennett says to do, one may be keeping addiction rates down -- but just because another law is on the books does not mean that men and women have the spirit to follow it. That spirit must take precedence over the law -- and it comes from conscience and the application of virtue. Perhaps by legalizing drugs, the MacDonald brothers could have faced life like honest men without having to feel like criminals and act like criminals. Perhaps they could have faced their drug problems instead of worrying about facing the Law.
We can also speculate as to how de-criminalizing drugs would affect the community. MacDonald sees firsthand how drugs affect his friends, when he loses a bunch of pills on the dance floor and all his friends go crazy trying to get them: "In the end I couldn't believe how important a bunch of tiny red pills could be, making all my friends act differently and cheating me out of the few they'd found on the dance floor, and making my own brother want to kick my ass" (MacDonald 131). The point that MacDonald recognizes is that greed is what is at the heart of the problem -- not drugs or violence. Greed makes his friends want what they cannot otherwise afford. And greed for profits makes his own brother want to beat him. If drugs were legalized, then perhaps they would be more affordable. Perhaps people of age could then decide for themselves if they wanted to use them. They would be free to make their own choices. Of course, they would have to be taught to make good choices -- but that is a different problem. But it is the most important problem -- and it is the most important problem at the heart of All Souls: in life, one should make good choices -- but we all must learn how to make good choices and what the good is -- otherwise, life is hazy and obscure and chaotic.
Unfortunately, Bennett spends more time in his essay citing sources that say how bad legalization of drugs would be. What he spends no time doing is citing sources that say how bad it is to keep people from informing their own consciences and allowing themselves to make their own decisions -- rather than have some government official make it for them. If the MacDonalds had lived in a world that allowed them to be accountable for themselves and to themselves rather than to the welfare man or the police or the government -- then it might have been a different story.
Arming Oneself with Truth: Hasselstrom's Essay and All Souls
But because that world does not exist, we are faced with the story that MacDonald describes. It may be related to Hasselstrom's essay in which one must arm oneself to maintain one's peace. We may take this meaning both literally and symbolically. The question one might ask is whether a pistol would have allowed any of the MacDonalds to live. But we should not think of the pistol as a real gun. We might think of it instead as a symbol for truth and honesty.
If the MacDonalds had been allowed to arm themselves with truth and honesty rather than with falsehood and deception (in order to hide from the welfare man the actual state of their lives), then perhaps they would have survived. Hasselstrom's woman in the essay keeps her pistol as protection and uses it frighten off those whom she fears. Now, if we take the meaning of the pistol literally then we are forced to say that having one is a two-way street: it may make you more safe even as it makes you more dangerous. A gun can be used against oneself just as easily as it can be used against others. It can kill. Therefore, there is no guarantee that a gun would have saved the MacDonalds.
However, if we treat the gun symbolically we can say that arming oneself with manly virtue is much better than feigning virtue for the eyes of the government. We might conclude from Hasselstrom's essay, then, that arming oneself is always good -- but we should…
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