A Condescending Impulse

A Condescending Impulse

In my last few posts I have written about Johann Hari’s research into Harry Anslinger, the nation’s first Commissioner for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and what Hari learned about Anslinger and the start of the nation’s war on drugs. Anslinger held deeply racist views which he channeled into propaganda and drug policy in the Untied States. Hari was appalled by what he read, the common newspaper headlines about Anslinger’s raids from the time, and the quotes from the Commissioner himself. Writing about his research, Hari states,

 

“At times, as I read through Harry’s ever-stranger arguments, I wondered: How could a man like this have persuaded so many people? But the answers were lying there, waiting for me, in the piles of letters he received from members of he public, from senators and from presidents. They wanted to be persuaded. They wanted easy answers to complex fears. It’s tempting to feel superior – to condescend to these people – but I suspect this impulse is there in all of us. The public wanted to be told that these deep, complex problems – race, inequality, geopolitics – came down  to a few powders and pills, and if these powders and pills could be wiped from the world, these problems would disappear.” (Underlined text emphasis added by blog author)

 

We live in a complex world and we all lead busy lives that demand a lot of mental energy and attention just to keep the lights on. We hopefully figure out how to be successful and productive in our own lives, but we only ever get a single perspective on the world, our own. We want to believe that we are good people and that success in our society is entirely within the control of the individual (especially if we have become successful ourselves). When we face great uncertainty and complexity which doesn’t seem to line up with experiences of our lives or the heuristics we have developed for how we live, we seek simple answers that confirm what we want to believe. That is what Hari’s quote shows.

 

Anslinger was building a coalition of like-minded individuals with racial prejudices who wanted to be proven right. They feared drugs, and found drug users and addicts to be easy and defenseless targets. Drugs became a simple answer to the complex problems of why some people became dregs on society while others became wealthy successes.

 

Hari’s quote points out that we should recognize this, but not demonize people for it. We should acknowledge that this instinct is within all of us, and we should not fall into this condescending impulse and turn around a vilify those who are vilifying others. We must approach even our enemies and those among us who are wrong and hold dangerous beliefs with empathy. We must understand that the faults we find in them are faults that we too may have. The only way to connect and make real changes is to recognize and acknowledge these fears, and work to demonstrate how these simple answers to complex problems cannot possibly encompass all that is wrong in our societies so that we can move forward with better ideas and policies in the future.
Punishment Versus Compassion

Punishment Versus Compassion

An idea that Johann Hari explores in his book Chasing The Scream is that people with drug addiction need family and community support to get through their addiction, not punishment and castigation. Throughout the book Hari asks why people develop addictions, what do people do when they successfully get past an addiction, and what structures and systems work against recovery?

 

Early in the book Hari references a conversation he had with pastor and civil rights activist Eugene Callender about singer Billie Holliday. Hari writes, “Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, are human beings, just like you and me. Punishment makes them sicker; compassion can make them well.”

 

Hari argues that community is the cure for drug addiction. He sees drug addiction as a consequence of trauma, pain, depression, adverse experiences, and a loss of a sense of togetherness. When people are isolated and don’t truly feel as though they are part of a larger community where they belong and where their lives and actions matter, then people can’t take personal responsibility, they can’t work for more, and they often turn to drugs to blunt the pain and fill the empty voids. What this means, is that addiction is a consequence of everyone’s selfish actions, it is not just a moral failing of the individual. Consequently, we all have a role to play in the recovery of those in our communities dealing with addiction.

 

What Reverend Callender noticed, as highlighted in the quote above, is that people dealing with substance addictions need support and guidance to get through their struggles. People turn to drugs in times of pain when they feel something lacking in their lives. Taking more away from them, limiting their ability to interact with a community, and pushing more challenges at them only worsens the underlying psychological stress and trauma that drove them to addiction in the first place. Punishment is harmful, whereas compassion and forgiveness is what gives people a second chance and encourages them to improve their lives. If we don’t treat people facing addiction with dignity and respect, can we ever expect them to treat themselves with the dignity and respect needed to overcome addiction?
A Racist Start to the Drug War

A Racist Start to the Drug War

My last post was about Harry Anslinger’s racist views and how they influenced public policy. I wanted to focus on what we could learn from his mistakes, and how we could think about our own policy positions given the terrors we have seen in the past from biased policy positions, confirmation bias, and believing things are true simply because we want them to be true.

 

Today’s post is more specifically just an examination of race and drug policy, looking all the way back to the start of the war on drugs. During a time when protests against racial violence in policing is front and center, I think it is helpful to consider how race was specifically used in drug wars to hurt racial minorities, especially black men and women. Black lives matter, but our nation has not always believed that, and we cannot separate the disparities in racial sentencing, death rates, and wealth from the policies of our nation’s past.

 

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johan Hari writes about his shock at finding that the drug war, in its early days, was not so much about mitigating drug addiction or preventing new addiction in teenagers, as it is today, but about controlling racial minorities. He cites overtly racist headlines in newspapers and talks about Anslinger’s efforts to target minority populations, while letting white drug users off the hook and helping them find treatment to wean off drugs. A central character in the book is Billie Holiday, a black musician targeted by Anslinger for her drug use. Her story provides a window into the racialized tactics used to enforce drug laws, and create a nationwide story about the danger of black people using drugs.

 

Hari writes, “Many white Americans did not want to accept that black Americans might be rebelling because they had lives like Billie Holiday’s – locked into Pigtowns and banned from developing their talents. It was more comforting to believed that a white powder was the cause of black anger, and that getting rid of the white powder would render black Americans docile and on their knees again.”  The failure of black Americans to become successful was blamed on drugs, and ultimately on a genetic and/or cultural inferiority that justified their low social positions and justified a drug war waged against them. White American’s didn’t want to believe that they could be held responsible for the strife of African Americans, so they invented new excuses for racist policies.

 

As we look around the country today, we should keep these kinds of policies and views in mind. It was not that long ago that we were so openly racist in the development of policies that are still impacting the world today. We can no longer justify racial disparities by saying that there is some type of problem with minorities that justifies the disparities in our policies and outcomes. We need to demonstrate that black lives matter and advance policies that correct the wrongs of our past.
Racially Motivated Policy

On the Dangers of Racially Motivated Public Policy

In his book Chasing the Scream, Johann Hari writes about Harry Anslinger, the Nation’s first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger was a staunch anti-drug crusader, but he also held deeply racist views which came to influence his opinions about drug use and national policy related to specific drugs. In many ways, it was Anslinger’s racist views that created a national prohibition on marijuana, and lead to years of laws prosecuting marijuana use and racially disparate arrests.

 

Early in his career, Anslinger wasn’t very interested in marijuana. He was more focused on heroin and cocaine, but Hari explains that heroin and cocaine use was not wide spread enough in the American population to justify the size of his agency. As newspapers began to report on crime related to black and brown people in the United States who had used marijuana, Anslinger seized on the opportunity to demonize the drug. Hari writes, “almost overnight, he began to argue the opposite position. Why? He believed the two most-feared groups in the United States – Mexican immigrants and African Americans – were taking the drug much more than white people.”

 

Despite evidence from researchers and physicians indicating that marijuana use generally did not lead to the atrocities that Anslinger began to claim, he pushed forward with harsh drug policies related to marijuana, policies that he knew would have a racially disparate impact. At a certain point, in the picture Hari presents, it appears that Ansligner began to believe what he wanted and see what he wanted in the world around him. After he proved how dangerous the mafia was in the United States, contrary to the view of many experts, he began to believe his own rhetoric about racial inferiority and marijuana dangers. Hari writes, “Anslinger began to believe all his hunches would turn out like this. He only had to defy the experts and keep using his instinct until, finally, he would be shown to be more right than anyone could have predicted.”

 

Anslinger was clearly wrong, and his stance and attitude are easy to denounce today. But what we should learn from his story is just how dangerous public policy can be when it is motivated by racist values and hatred. For many of us today, we believe our values are high minded, and we believe that the policies we favor can have no downside. Nevertheless, we can still learn from the example of Anslinger and the resulting racial problems his policies created in the Untied States.

 

We need to be honest with ourselves and those around us about the values that drive our policy decisions. We should be honest about the potential failure points of the policy we support, and we should acknowledge that there are potential negatives of what we do. This requires that we recognize the message we are trying to push, and avoid simply looking for examples in the world that confirm what we already want to believe. If our values are indeed high-minded, and if we can be open and honest about our motivations, then our policies should be supported by a larger audience. Failing to be honest and open can put us in a place where we defend bad policy, and push for policies that explicitly hurt others, without us acknowledging the downsides. It is also critical that we acknowledge the role that race plays (or has the potential to play) in the policies and attitudes we support. The same reflection and honesty regarding our policies must apply to the racial outcomes of the policies we favor, and we have to push back against policies with disparate negative outcomes for minority groups.
Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

Harry Anslinger and the Fragility of Civilization

To open his book Chasing The Scream, author Johann Hari tells a story about Harry Anslinger and the fragility of civilization. Anslinger was the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and sparked the war on drugs in the United States. As a young child, Hari explains, Anslinger was at a farm house where he heard a woman screaming in agony as she possibly experienced drug withdrawals. The owner of the house sent him to the pharmacy to return with a package and drugs to ease the woman’s suffering, which Ansligner did, but the memory of the screams would haunt Ansligner forever, pushing him to spend his entire life fighting against any drugs that he believed were dangerous.

 

In World War I Anslinger became a diplomatic agent in Europe, and he saw the destruction of entire cities and the destruction of human life first hand. At  the end of the war, Anslinger learned another lesson that would stick with him for life. Hari writes, “What shook Harry most of all was the effect of the war not on the buildings but on the people. They seemed to have lost all sense of order.” Ansligner was concerned about riots, starving desperate people driven to chaos, and entire institutions crumbling, leading to strife among the people. Hari continues, “Civilization, he was beginning to conclude, was as fragile as the personality of that farmer’s wife back in Altoona. It could break.”

 

Chasing the Scream is a brutally honest look at drug policy and the war on drugs in the United States. Anslinger was key in kickstarting the war on drugs, but his message was carried on after he left office, and to this day after his death. Hari asks tough questions, trying to understand if there is a way to win a war on drugs and whether we should be more concerned about the consequences we have seen from battling drugs in every arena. At the end, Hari concludes that what we need to fight a war on drugs is not a war mentality, but an understanding of the importance of community, and a rebuilding of social solidarity, trust, and a new sense of our responsibility to each other. Anslinger was right, to conclude that civilization was fragile, but he was wrong is his prescribed treatment. A war to end vice only tears apart our social fabric, weakening the communities which build our civilization.

 

Hari believes that what we need are better ways to understand each other, and more supports for everyone in society. Many of the evils that we attribute to drug use, Hari argues, are in fact byproducts of the war we wage against drugs. In an effort to impose social order on people, with the rhetoric of war and a mindset steeped in racism, Ansligner helped to create a system that broke civilization for some of the most vulnerable among us, just as he always feared from the moments he heard the screams of the farmer’s wife in his childhood.

 

We must remember just how close our civilization can be to chaos and disorder. We need to look for leaders who can bring us together rather than leaders who seek to castigate others and toss them out. We need to think about how we build new institutions that help develop greater sense of community, and how we help those who have the least. If we fail to do so, we will increase inequality, and then blame the inequalities on those who faced the greatest adversity as a result of our inequalities. This will segregate our societies and create more chaos, making it harder for us to come together when we need to, exacerbating our drug and violence problems.