That this house notes with sadness the 10th anniversary of the death of Bill Hicks, on February 26th 1994, at the age of 32; recalls his assertion that his words would be a bullet in the heart of consumerism, capitalism and the American Dream; and mourns the passing of one of the few people who may be mentioned as being worthy of inclusion with Lenny Bruce in any list of unflinching and painfully honest political philosophers – Stephen Pound MP, in a February 2004 Early Day Motion before the House of Commons.
Today would have been Bill Hicks’ 49th birthday. Born on December 16th 1961 in a small town in Georgia, Bill was about as far away from the stereotypical resident of the Deep South that you can imagine. Discovering at an early age that he had a gift for making people laugh and that he had a lot to say for himself, he grew up to become – without exaggeration – the most influential comedian of his generation and, as Stephen Pound MP pointed out in his extremely unusual EDM, a modern philosopher.
Despite the fact that Hicks had to cross the Atlantic to make a success of himself (he was immediately and passionately adored by us Brits from a very early stage in his professional career), and although his material was frequently outrageous and often very closely skirted the borders of good taste, there were many in his homeland and elsewhere who were inspired into action on hearing his vicious, pin-point accurate critiques of humanity and American culture. He loved and despaired of his country in equal measure, and was never afraid to poke at cultural sacred cows with a pointy stick.
Oh dear. Some silly tabloid journalist had to go ask John Lydon what he thought of the Arctic Monkeys. That was never going to end well. Under the deeply original (not) headline “It’s the Arctic punkies”, Lydon is quoted thusly:
“Oh don’t be silly. That’s not a band. That’s a showbiz construct. A mockery. Alex Turner just turns on the computer and types in ‘punk’ and it goes ‘ping’. I see no gut-wrenching soul-searching going on there”
Hmmm. I know full well that Lydon is a classic contrarian, that his brand of punk has never been about principles, and that he’s probably entirely right about the Arctic Monkeys (full disclosure: I’d rather chew my own foot off than listen to any of their albums…) – but this from the man who sold what little soul he had left – after Malcolm McClaren had finished with it, obviously – to a butter company, of all things? Not very punk, really – however you choose to define that concept.
“It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on personal freedom is what it is, OK? Keep that in mind at all times. Thank you. They lump all drugs together. It’s not going to work…” – Bill Hicks, 1990
Hicks had a point, you know. But, then again, he frequently did. On that showing, and if he were still alive, I’d probably be lobbying for him to replace Professor David Nutt, the scientific advisor to the British government on the subject of illegal substances, who was unfairly sacked by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson at the end of last week (two of Nutt’s colleagues have since resigned in support of his stance).
And why was Nutt sacked? Simply because he dared to take a stand on the relative dangers of drugs such as cannabis and ecstasy that actually took into consideration the scientific evidence, rather than simply toeing the government policy line on the assumed risks associated with such substances.
Final proof, if any were needed, that drug policy in this country bears no resemblance to scientific fact and has everything to do with the assumptions and prejudices of politicians; many of whom seem to be stuck in the 1950s in their attitudes towards drugs anyway – Gordon Brown’s public pronouncement in April 2008 that cannabis is a ‘lethal’ drug being but one example of how out of touch this government is on the matter.
The drug issue has always been a complex and emotive one. There are and will always be risks associated with drug use, risks which cannot be underestimated or ignored – but the vast majority of illegal drug users in this country (and there are many) have positive and enjoyable experiences on their substances of choice, much like those who enjoy a social and legal pint or two in the pub of a weekend.