Whitney Houston, she of the musical gift we may see only once in a lifetime, is dead at 48. There has been no final determination, but there is little doubt: drugs killed her.
Houston, they say, and I have no reason to doubt it, was troubled by the pressures of show business, celebrity and stardom, and with a little help from her dead-beat, abusive husband, singer Bobby Brown, sought to relieve the stress with a variety of illegal substances, including cocaine. Over the past 15 years or so, Americans have been able to watch the relentless deterioration of Houston, once the epitome of a beautiful, intelligent, ebullient and charismatic presence, into an emaciated, ruined shell with only a hint of the glorious instrument that once, in the middle of a war abroad, delivered the most stirring rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner I have ever heard, or ever will hear.
This happened to Whitney Houston because when illegal drugs were among the options she could have chosen to accept or reject as a way to get through difficult days and troubled times, she did not have the instant reaction, hard-wired in her brain, that has to stop all of us from doing terrible, dangerous, irresponsible and anti-social things. There can be little doubt that some theoretical options would have triggered that reaction. They would be the options that did not seem like options at all, because the culture Whitney Houston lived in was unequivocal and unshakable in its verdict, a verdict virtually all members of that culture naturally adopted and accepted—because that’s what cultures do. And when that option presented itself, Whitney Houston, like the culture she was a part of, would have said “No.”
That she didn’t say no to drugs, and is dead because of it, was the direct result of an American culture that does not give its constituency a clear message and verdict. Instead, the clearest and most unequivocal signal from the culture, the fact that recreational drugs are illegal and that America enforces the laws against them, is progressively weakened by ridicule, attack, popular culture, and the defiance or hypocrisy of role models and public figures. Incredibly, though the deaths by drug-abuse among the tiny proportion of the world that is famous and talented—Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Whitney—should make it obvious how massive the number of anonymous victims of drug abuse there must be, the destructive refrains grow louder: Legalize drugs! End the War on Drugs! And those calls weaken the cultural resolve further. Actually doing what they advocate would cripple it….and that day might come.
Whether they are preventing the culture from rejecting drug use because enforcement is expensive, or because they have a relative or friend in prison for drug-dealing; whether they are calling for legalization because they are libertarians and academics or Ron Paul, or because they are public officials who see a new revenue source; whether they are longing for the halcyon days of Haight-Ashbury and the Strawberry Alarm Clock, or just like getting stoned, these are the people whose advocacy continues to nurture a competing culture that killed Whitney Houston, as surely as if she had been shot her between the eyes.
I would say that if their insistence on legalization is followed, and the nation’s laws join the popular throng in pronouncing addictive and life-destroying drugs as legitimate “options,” many more like her will die….except there aren’t many more like her. But there are countless lives to destroy, and unimaginable losses to families, businesses and America to be endured.
I just watched the video of Whitney Houston’s glorious performance of our National Anthem at the Super Bowl, before the drugs had finished their work. She radiates confidence, strength and character, as well as that special joy that the fortunate few with magical gifts have. She brings a stadium full of Americans to their feet in cheers, with an exhibition of artistry that will continue to inspire forever. Drugs took all of that away, from Whitney Houston and from us.
Because our culture could not say no with enough conviction to save her.
Update (2/15/12): With some regret, I am closing comments on this post. Too many commenters refused to discuss the issue it was intended to raise, which was how cultural approval and disapproval of conduct is more powerful, ultimately, than the law in establishing standards. I have committed on this blog to responding to as many comments as possible, but the onslaught of pro-drug zealots whose tactic was to keep repeating the same arguments no matter how many times I gave my response led me into too many frustrated responses, too many nasty exchanges, and too many hasty replies that I wish I had stated more clearly. For those I apologize, both to the visitors involved and other readers. I also apologize for ending the discussion here, but I don’t have the time to monitor it. You are welcome to e-mail me personally.