Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just Say No

Hal Pepinsky
August 13, 2009
When I heard protesters outside President Obama’s New Hampshire town meeting earlier this week shouting “just say no!” they carried me back to Nancy Reagan’s project as First Lady in the eighties. I’m wired like this. I may be losing my memory for names or words, but I remain wired to connect things said and done here and now to things said and done before. In this instance, I presume that the same approach to politics that spawned Ms. Reagan’s war on drugs has spawned protests against health care reform. I’m not blaming Ms. Reagan for her campaign; I assume she was a loyal wife doing what her handlers told her to do. Call me cynical. I assume by a process of survival of the politically hottest even those who qualify to become president largely do as they are told. I have great respect for President Obama as a personal, thoughtful, honest intellect. When I look at how he caves to generals on warfare, I see yet another president who qualifies for office because he will not question military advice. If you place him beside a Dennis Kucinich for example, Mr. Obama qualifies to be president in part because of his foreign-policy naiveté. I imagine that by the time he got to law school, he received and as law review editor accepted the postulate that any lawyer worth his or her salt could become an expert on any issue in 48 hours. What that capacity to digest information at hand leaves out is room for historical perspective, notably on whether we are repeating doomed historical precedents. I have already written about doomed U.S. military hegemony. Now I turn to the limitations of opposition generally and the war on drugs, as in opium production in Afghanistan, in particular.
I also hear one of the people feeding lines to health care reform protesters cite labor organizer Saul Alinsky as inspiration for his campaign. Indeed, Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky wrote what became a bible even to law-school graduate Chicago community organizer Barack Obama himself.
I oppose oppositional politics. There was a time in my alternative social control systems class when I used to put up labels for me that I did and did not accept. I put left and right on one axis on the blackboard, and then at right angles from the center of that line drew a line that ended in anarchism—living among one another as though no one deserved to be the boss of anyone else. In the Confucian pantheon descending from ruler to ruled thence to father and son…, friend to friend is at the bottom of the list. That’s where Dao/Taoist Laoze and I dwell, in the land where bosses survive (as in Laoze’s time in China’s two millennia ago Warring States Period) by letting go of power long enough listen to their subordinates. After a couple of decades or so as an anarchist criminal justice professor, I believe that I came to enjoy increasing student stimulation and support as I learned to listen to my students.
It is refreshing to have a U.S. president who displays this gift himself. But we cannot expect any father figure (whether man , woman, or body) to grant or legislate our security. One reason I gave up litigation for mediation is that mediation gets you, in another Harvard lawyer Roger Fisher’s terms, that “getting to yes” means getting off oppositional political positions toward negotiating interests. A psychiatrist friend I recently visited branded me oppositional. I plead guilty of being constitutionally opposed to political opposition. Just saying no and zero tolerance just plain make no sense in getting down to negotiating interests.
The draconian Rockefeller drug law had just taken effect when I joined the criminal justice faculty for four years at the State University of New York at Albany in 1972. President Nixon declared the first formal war national war on drugs since Prohibition in 1973. Once it was thrown in my criminal justice face that drug enforcement had become the major contributor to the growth of the crime control industry, growth in jail and prison populations included, I became an avid student of the history of U.S. drug control efforts. And so here, and surely in future posts, I comment on absurdities of drug prohibition. Among other things it has been my Walter Mitty lot to experience, I have qualified for free expert testimony on an array of issues, including drug control issues. My primary research has been to prepare to face two or three hundred South Central Indiana students who typically included local law enforcement. I offer readers these credentials.
Drug control is huge. In this post, I’ll just lay down several conclusions I’ve reached on the subject for comment and discussion:
1. Drug wars only multiply illicit drug production, trafficking, and addiction.
2. The same U.S. govt that promises to curb opium production in Afghanistan set up the production system ca 1980 to fund a covert war against the Soviet Union.
3. As in Switzerland, those with opiate including heroin habits can safely and non-toxically be maintained, so what’s the fuss about?
4. Ideally, the government should take the public health lead by continuing to certify what’s in what we ingest, inhale and inject, and then let us make our own decisions about our own bodies.
5. Today’s npr “Morning Edition” report on how freely one can get medical marijuana in California indicates how simply that by lifting federal law enforcement off the backs of states which allow medical use, we can regain control of our own minds, hearts, and bodies.

How about rising above opposing talking points in drug control, healthcare, and military deployment debates?
Love and peace--hal


  1. Hal,

    So pleased to find you in this little corner of the blogosphere! (How geek-chic does THAT sound?)

    Re: "Just Say No": An excellent discussion of drug prohibition and similarly polarizing issues (those so notably fueled by impassioned rhetorical fire and, as you say, “oppositional politics”). As a humble colleague in criminological scholarship and classroom instruction (interestingly, in southern Indiana, of all places), I'm fortunate to have learned quite quickly the threat that such politics pose to scholarly discussion and thorough analysis, and most importantly, the recognition that reality exists only as what sits in front of us, caring little for ideology or affiliation.

    The prohibition of drugs seems to stand as exemplary of actions and reactions driven by those realities that many perceive and learn over time, of beliefs – and ultimately behaviors, from hastily punched ballots and political exploitation to the outright demonization and multifaceted abuse of fellow human beings – springing from deep-seated cues, though in this case the connection between dogma and policy is quite clear.

    Of course, these cues and behaviors are many, as you echo in previous posts: we learn from our first waking days the simplicity and accepted definitions of “right” and “wrong;” we note the value of social and power structures; we take notice of the importance of association with the “us” and the ostracization of the “them.” We punish and delegitimize the other, and revere those rules and rulers that endlessly purport to keep us safe and secure. It’s no great surprise that similar themes – of delegitimization and punishment – translate so readily, so easily, to our punitive system of justice, and to our notions of crime, criminality, and social control.

    What I find particularly interesting is the virtually outright, smack-upside-the-head connection between the aforementioned popular notions of early childhood education (right vs. wrong, demonization, etc.) and public policy with respect to the issue of narcotics; certainly, broad notions of criminality and “the criminal man,” for example, are clearly rooted in youthful learning of right and wrong, but with the issue of drugs, the adherence to a legislated belief system is glaring. As early as grade school, young people are spoken down-to about the horrors of drugs and the consequences (typically incarceration and/or madness) of choosing addiction, typically by uniformed law enforcement with the aid of, for example, a cartoonish animal puppet with an absurd voice. The clear connection is made between prohibition and social/legal acceptance, and any alternative – in the end, even any alternative discussion – is delegitimized and relegated to the realm of the “other.” This doesn’t begin to touch on the issues of society and culture impacting each and every one of us as we travel on our respective paths, those that ultimately shape who we are – the ways we think, the choices we make and the actions we take. The idea stuns me consistently: from playground afternoons, we cling ever tightly to prohibition, and to the inherent badness of the “outsider” view.

    (to be continued...)

  2. It is this crippling of thought – the process of at best dismissing or at worst demonizing or, heaven forbid, criminalizing, perspectives – that I see as a particularly problematic feature of oppositional politics. For the past few years, I have helmed an introductory course in issues of terrorism and global society; those very same politics are a consistent weight on productive discussions, as oversimplification, polarization, and delegitimization threaten to seep in through the cracks. To examine, deconstruct, and empirically analyze issues of conflict in our global world is, in sum, to do the same for much larger notions of identity and interconnectedness, a process that seems to clash violently with oppositional politics. Needless to say, that I am permitted the opportunity to provide a platform for these discussions is at once wholly challenging and deeply rewarding, despite the occasional awkward flailing after stumbling over old, misplaced talking points.

    Perhaps there will come a moment in the not-too-distant future when that uniformed officer from only a short time ago enters that same grade school classroom, and, with a now-mature drug war percolating safely behind the scenes, speaks to students of a gilded war on terror (or overseas [or homeland?] contingency operation, or struggle against violent extremism, or any other term du jour) and all the marvelous labeling contained therein. Perhaps that’ll be the day I throw up my hands and slip into a carefree life of chartering fishermen in the Keys.

    Or perhaps not.

    Best, G.

  3. thanks for helping me not feel like a total outlier. l&p hal