Sunday, April 05, 2009

The War on Drugs and the National Psychology of Post-1960s America

This morning I finished reading Dan Baum's 1996 book Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure. As a long time student of American history, I rarely feel much outrage. I shake my head. I sigh. I wonder why Americans make terrible decisions. Sometimes I laugh to keep from crying. But I don't feel true outrage very often.

Reading about the war on drugs outraged me.

While reading Baum's book, I kept thinking about issues of national psychology. What causes Americans to make policy decisions based upon a widespread belief/fear/outrage over some issue, despite the fact of any evidence to back up the scaremongering? Why do we feel the need to demonize groups of people for some reason?

I don't have any answers for these questions, but the war on drugs tapped into the national crisis surrounding the 1960s. The war on drugs is basically a front in the larger culture war. The rebellion of the 1960s, the counterculture, civil rights, feminism, and the anti-Vietnam protests scared a huge number of Americans. The culture wars that I think are finally winding down are still battles over the legacy of the 1960s. Conservatives reacted to the 1960s by fighting a decades long war to punish the transgressors.

Baum does a great job of building this context, particularly concerning race. The war on drugs was really a war against black people. It was more than that of course, but politicians combined with the media to whip up scares about "crime" and "deviancy," that was really about black people. Perhaps the waning of the culture wars partially reflects the aging and dying of the whites who were so offended by civil rights.

Nonetheless, looking at these issues in the context of larger problems in America by no means tampered my outrage. The sheer stupidity of the politicians pushing the war on the drugs, the mendacity of its leaders, and the greed of the agencies involved is shocking. The number of evil people who show up in this story was quite surprising: everyone from Antonin Scalia to Rudy Giuliani to Al From. No one comes across worse than Bill Bennett, that hypocritical gasbag and self-proclaimed moral compass of America who never met an empty moral platitude he didn't like. RICO and civil forfeiture laws meant that law agencies created funding opportunities for themselves by seizing property of even innocent people without the slightest fear of exposure or censor. Courts were set up to process young black people into jail. Democrats caved to fears of being soft on crime; Joe Biden looks especially bad, for he used the supposed spectre of drugs to give him a campaign issue, make him seem tough, and advance his political career.

Meanwhile, the white public of the United States cheered this on every step of the way. The few voices of reason who tried to compile and present evidence about the actual effects of drugs on society were ignored and marginalized. I'm wondering if, along with civil rights, the key to understanding these events is the reaction to Vietnam. One of the most interesting points Baum makes is that as soon as we fight the first Gulf War, coverage of the war on drugs declines precipitously. George H.W. Bush viewed that war as America finally overcoming Vietnam. While I've always thought this was absurd, maybe Bush was onto something he didn't quite understand. Maybe the war on drugs was a way to fight and win against undesirable people here at home. Frustrated with Vietnam, we turned on the hippies and the black people here at home, people we thought deserved the blame for our foreign policy failures. With an actual military victory over an obscure nation of brown people, did Americans no longer see the need to fight against domestic enemies with such vigor?

Of course, the victory in Kuwait did not end the culture wars. While the war on drugs lost its momentum, it still has the institutional power to continue its policies without abatement. The nation then turned to other grave threats, like gays and immigrants.... And then of course terrorism, the wet dream of Republicans who want to eviscerate the Constitution.

With the repudiation of Republican policies and much of the culture war, I wonder what the future is for all aspects of that war--immigration policy, the gay rights movement, and most certainly the war on drugs. I've been talking recently about the new space for real discussions of decriminalization; for the first time since the Carter administration, politicians can talk about these issues without sacrificing their political careers. The rise of social libertarianism among young people and their growing acceptance of marijuana across the political spectrum places the future of the war on drugs in doubt. Even if my optimism is justified though, the work we need to do to roll back the drug war's damage is massive. We'll face major resistance, particularly from police departments and pieces of the federal government that rely on civil forfeiture money to fund its operations. If the DEA can't fight marijuana, what is the purpose of their existence and their huge budget?

I'd be happy to go into a lot more detail on particular issues if people are interested, for I could go on a long time about the incredibly stupid and damaging drug policies the American people have bought into over the last 40 years. But I'll stop for now.