In his section on Opium in the book, This is Your Mind on Plants, the author Michael Pollan writes about how his first story that was to appear in the leading newspapers in the 1990s was redacted and cut after a legal review. (The entire essay is printed in the book that was published 20 years later). This essay seems to precede the opioid crises in America that was to surface just a decade later. But it was apparent that the undercurrent was already at play. The world just had no idea how it would pan out.
His sentence on journalism and its bearing on History resonated on so many levels, that I noted it down then and there.
“There’s a parable here somewhere, about the difference between journalism and history. What might appear to be “the story” in the present moment may actually be a distraction from it, a shiny object preventing us from seeing the truth of what is really going on beneath the surface of our attention, what will most deeply affect people’s lives in time.”Michael Pollan – Our Mind on Plants
Later in the book, when he is talking about caffeine, he mentions this piece of Asian history that emerged from the tea-drinking habit of the British. By the 1800’s tea drinking had become a normal routine of English life. Jane Austen refers to tea in her books published in the early 1880s. In the book, Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865, tea parties are galore.
“Yes, that’s it! “, said the Hatter
with a sigh, “it’s always tea time.”Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland
Here is the excerpt of the section on the British East India Company’s tea trade with China.
Since the company had to pay for tea in Sterling, and China had little interest in English goods, England began running a ruinous trade deficit with China. The East India Company came up with two clever strategies to improve its balance and payments position: it turned to India, a country it controlled that had no history of large-scale tea production, and transformed it into a leading producer of tea – and opium. The tea was exported to England and the opium, over the strenuous objections of the Chinese government, was smuggled into China, in what would quickly become a ruinous and unconscionable flood.
By 1828, the opium trade represented 16% of the company’s revenues, and within 5 years, the East India company was sending more than 5 million pounds of Indian opium to China per year. This helped close the trade deficit but millions of Chinese became addicted. After the Chinese emperor ordered the seizure of all stores of opium in 1839, Britain declared war to keep the opium flowing. Owing to the Royal Navy’s vastly superior firepower, the British quickly prevailed, forcing open 5 “treaty ports” and taking possession of Hong King in a crushing blow to China’s sovereignty and economy,.
So here was another moral cost of caffeine: in order for the English mind to be sharpened with tea, the Chinese mind had to be clouded with opium.”Michael Pollan – This is your mind on Plants
The adage ‘History is written by the victor’ does ring true in most cases. How many perspectives of every narrative are there? How does one classify a good side or a bad side? The perspective of time lends a helpful lens. For instance, when Madeleine Albright, the first woman senator met Vladimir Putin in the 1990’s, she was asked of her opinion of him. She recognized him as a despot in the making, and one who was preternaturally occupied with the idea of a United Sovereign States of Russia (USSR before it disintegrated into Russia + all the other smaller countries). I suppose this is an example of a seed taking root in one’s mind and growing and festering with time. The war on Ukraine is but a step in that direction.
More importantly though, what is current journalism missing for the larger picture today? Whether it is in the reporting of Covid, the Ukraine crisis, or the larger commodity of people’s attention spans. Our future generations would point to this day and age of our shrinking attention spans in an attempt to capture our attentions, and see the arc from some place that humanity had reached. Would it be a virtual reality universe designed to give us more options to escape from life, or will life itself change? Nobody knows. But in order to see how it pans out, we need our critical faculties about us.
‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ said Alice.
‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the cat. ‘We’re all mad here.’Lewis Carroll