Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

I am outraged at David Brooks’ continuing execution of the War on Drugs

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[Updated below]

[If you read my piece entitled I’m so outraged at Kim Kardashian for maintaining the 5th Fleet in a human rights violating autocracy, some of this may be familiar.]

Someone who doesn't have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

Someone who doesn’t have any lawmaking or prosecutorial power

One of the strange things about our politics is the disconnect between what sorts of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice.  I’m thinking specifically of how a statement can set off outrage while the background behaviors, activities or policies that the statement expresses or seeks to justify do not.  So Mitt Romney can, as the nominee of the Republican Party, run an entire campaign on policies that are designed to better distribute wealth to the wealthy while ignoring the concerns of large blocs of voters, but it takes him saying that he only cares about half of the voters to really get people outraged.

I think this dynamic is a product of two things.  First, a great deal of our politics concerns people’s motives and character, which are largely unknowable, as opposed to assessing their actions on their own terms.  So when someone says something, potentially revealing their intentions, it seems powerful.  Second, and I suspect more importantly, it’s hard to get upset about long-standing, entrenched conditions.  We do better trying to oppose some deviation from the norm, or at least, things that are understood that way.  Thus we see a great deal of arguments over precedents outside the courtroom, where they may well seem misplaced. Similarly, the nonstop efforts to paint people and positions are “extreme” without attending to the merits of the position. Politics is in many ways largely an effort to decide whose positions are considered speakable and whose are not, which is fairly antithetical to both the idea of progress and the ideal of democracy.

This all came to mind yesterday as I was thinking about David Brooks (and Ruth Marcus and Joe Scarborough) whose latest comments responding to Colorado’s first day of legalized marijuana lead to all manner of snark and attacks in my timeline. It’s awful tripe, so I’ll just quote a little–and not the part where he discusses his own youthful marijuana use.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

The moral obtuseness of this, of calling mass incarceration “subtly tip[ping] the scale” or simply ignoring the actual impact of these laws on those they target in favor of the supposed positive impact of their existence, yet non-enforcement’ on rich white people like himself, is too much to take. It’s enraging.

But the fact that these dumb, morally repugnant ideas are broadly shared by the bipartisan elite class seems worth mentioning. More than that, it seems to be far more important.

In response to a proposal to legalize marijuana in New York State, Governor Cuomo, someone who has been put forth (wrongly) as a progressive possibility for the president, simply dismissed the bill as a “nonstarter.” Does he get mocked now? Or is it cool as long as he stays tight-lipped?

Henry Jackson reports on collaboration between liberals and tea partiers on sentencing reform that is fairly small-scale in terms of what’s being considered, and faces long hurdles including from Democrats.  Of course, small steps can be important (one key is that they must be treated as steps, with long-term larger goals kept firmly in mind) but this just goes to show how utterly not extreme the views of these pundits. Perhaps more telling is that the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act in the House has only 17 sponsors, and there is no corresponding Senate bill. So Marcus, Scarborough and Brooks are being singled out for mocking for supporting prohibition, a position shared with about 90% of elected Democrats?  Apparently, quietly supporting mass incarceration without defending it is superior making an argument. Why I cannot say.

(I should also point out that legalization doesn’t address hyper-aggressive police tactics or the costs to those already convicted, and that those same tactics and their consequent costs could just as easily be continued under the guise of a war on gun violence. Indeed, Democrat-in-good-standing Rahm Emanuel is pushing just that in Chicago. Then again, being a union busting destroyer of public schools doesn’t get you kicked out the club either, apparently.)

There’s nothing wrong with using a news hook to make a point, nothing wrong with making someone the face of a position, It’s necessary, it’s how our media and our politics work. But the key is to pivot from these personalized, event -driven moments to the larger issues at play. The best commentaries did just that–see Tressie McMillan Cottom and Adam Serwer on prohibition and the two-tired justice system, for two good examples. Bonus points for Tressie who reminds us of Bill Clinton’s role in making the plight of those with drug convictions even worse by making legitimate opportunities even narrower in ways that compound the existing racial and class biases. And of course, there are organizations out there like the ACLU that have been at the forefront of challenging what they call the War on Marijuana. You should definitely check out their report to get a full sense of what’s at stake here.

I want these pundits mocked–but I want it to be connected with our supposed allies who implicitly agree. I want liberal Democrats (to begin with) to be forced to answer for their position, to be asked if they agree with Brooks and company. And quite frankly, I want the word ‘racist’ to be deployed against those who continue to support the status quo.

The sin of claiming the Drug War is worth it is considerably less troubling (and don’t get me wrong, it is very troubling) than the sin of refusing to even consider legislation to change it or actually executing it.

So go after Brooks if you like, but in a couple of days when this thing has subsided, remember your tax dollars are actually being used to engage in the racialized aggressive policing and mass incarceration that presumably we all agree cannot be justified. A great goal would be to reduce the number of people in prison for drug offenses and a recommittment to constitutional limits on policing. There are a lot of things we could advocate for an end to prohibition  aside from making an example of someone whose fame and massive platform continues to baffle me.

[Update:]  h/t Rania Khalek – A post at Latino Rebels reminds us that it’s not just the destruction of communities of color is the U.S. that we need to be concerned about. I neglected to mention the role of the drug war in ravaging countries in Latin America, in particular Mexico.

Written by David Kaib

January 4, 2014 at 3:29 pm

6 Responses

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  1. […] things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice,” David Kaib begins in an examination of outrage centering on a marijuana Op-Ed by David Brooks, […]

  2. […] of things lead us, collectively, to express outrage and what sorts of things we don’t notice,” David Kaib begins in an examination of outrage centering on a marijuana Op-Ed by David Brooks, […]

  3. […] outside.” These people are doubly victimized: robbed of the opportunity and security that some other people can take for granted, and then assumed to be criminal (and therefore worthless) when this leads to their […]

  4. […] have written an extended blog about this memo, connecting it to David Kaib’s analysis of misguided outrage—Kaib’s about outrage targeting David Brooks, the columnist, and mine about knee-jerk […]

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