When I worked in the East Village, there was a homeless man on Avenue A who would recite the full text of “The Raven” for a dollar. The cornerstones of his operation were that A) it also cost a dollar to make him stop, and B) he was crazy. In addition to being about six foot six, he wore a feather sticking straight up out of his hair and was constantly trying to hug people. I once saw him kick a teenage boy in the testicles so hard that both his feet lifted off the ground. The Raven Guy was a real fixture, and like all crazy people he considered me his friend. One evening, as I was engaged in a delicate negotiation with a young woman re: the future of our relationship, he came charging across the street at us. “You listen to Dan,” he said, looming. “Dan knows what he’s doing.” She broke up with me immediately. I thought nothing like that would ever happen to me again, but this morning I learned that Pat Robertson supports the legalization of marijuana.
He also says that people in the Midwest who were killed by tornadoes should have prayed more. Here lies the problem. Before this morning, I readily would have typed the sentence everything Pat Robertson says is insane. That would be hyperbole, of course,* but for the purpose of our collectively mediated consciousness, it’s true. Not a disaster goes by that Robertson doesn’t blame on gay dudes or the failure of others to clasp their hands and silently repeat what he believes. In school we learned about medieval Europe and other backward cultures that believed natural disasters were expressions of angry gods, and here is a former candidate for president saying the same thing.
The man lacks credibility, is where I’m going with this. I think it is safe to say that he possesses a kind of anti-credibility; if Neil DeGrasse Tyson, for example, appeared on TV alongside Robertson, I would suddenly question his knowledge of space. The prospect of Robertson advancing a position that I wholeheartedly endorse is therefore kind of troubling.
Obviously, we can’t cite him as a source. Robertson will not be joining George Washington in the Notable Persons Who Liked Hemp argument anytime soon. His inadequacy to the task, however, points out the inadequacy of that argument. Knowing that William F. Buckley and John Adams thought marijuana should be legal does not, by our own rules, help us evaluate the truth of that proposition. To say it did would be no more valid than to say that Robertson’s endorsement proves weed should be illegal forever.
The prohibition against the ad hominem argument cuts both ways. By “prohibition against” I mean “quaint detail of rhetoric class that contemporary society ignores,” but that is what separates us from the animals. A swath of American citizenry believes that the statement you cheated on your wife—or you smoked dope in college—refutes any position. They are likely the same ones who accept as evidence Pat Robertson is a famous minister. I submit that such people provide the frictional drag an advancing civilization must overcome.
It would be nice to use Pat Robertson as an argument for decriminalizing marijuana. The conflation of people and arguments, however, is what got us to prohibition in the first place. The case against marijuana is an argument from tradition, from the authority of prejudice and old practice. As with a lot of arguments, the first step toward resolving it is to agree that a proposition is true or false regardless of who says it. Otherwise we’re stuck with the tornado thing.