Points Roundtable, Part 4: Bob Beach on Alex Berenson’s “Tell Your Children”

Editor’s Note: Today we bring you the fourth installment of our roundtable on Alex Berenson’s new book Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence. This post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

screenshot 2019-01-21 14.01.00I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up my copy of Alex Berenson’s new book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence to review for Points. I was following the media coverage of the book’s release with some interest and had some idea of what I might encounter, having already written a bit (here and here) on this forum on Berenson’s propagandistic forebear, Harry Anslinger.

But as I trudged into Dunham Public Library in Whitesboro, NY, on a rainy Thursday morning to get my copy, the focus of my review here today became immediately clear. I’m an ABD adjunct and it’s January. That means I’m between appointments and, more importantly, between paychecks. I wasn’t going to count on the speed of the interlibrary loan at my college library, so I checked out the Mid-York Library System, a cooperative network of 45 public libraries in three counties in central New York.

Having had longstanding access to college/university libraries for most of my adult life, I had to renew my public library card to check out Berenson’s tome. Armed with my renewed card and the Dewey decimal call number (how quaint!), this well-heeled library user went directly to the stacks and couldn’t… find… the book. I scanned the shelves, thinking it may have been put back in the wrong place, and while doing so I took note of the library’s selection of other books on drugs, drug use and drug policy, few of which I was actually familiar with. I subsequently checked the Mid-York catalog and, sure enough, there was nothing from Points co-founder Trysh Travis, nothing from co-founder Joe Spillane. Nothing from the new team of editors of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs.

The library was clearly censoring historians.

As I wandered to the circulation desk to ask for some assistance, I saw Berenson’s book. It was prominently displayed, face-out, on a fancy-looking wooden shelf built into a wall labelled “New Titles.” It was placed at the end of a row of conventionally stacked books, with its front cover begging the assembled clientele of parents, grandparents and local residents using the internet to READ THIS BOOK!!

I did not see any copies of Emily Dufton’s Grass Roots (though two copies circulate in the Mid-York system), nor did I see Nick Johnson’s recent book of the same name, nor Seth Blumenthal’s new book, Children of the Silent Majority. The only book that seemed to be available to inform the public library crowd on the issue of marijuana, as the state considers legalization this year, was Berenson’s. And, given his account of disingenuous reformers promoting the interests of Big Pot over the public health and safety of Americans, I started to wonder again about the role of authoritative voices in the public sphere. Where were the historians in this small community library?

Also: Who does Alex Berenson work for?

But I don’t want to go down that road. It oozes with conspiratorial cynicism, the same conspiratorial cynicism that seems to have informed Berenson’s supposedly (according to the back inside of the book jacket) “deeply researched and meticulously written” book. His attention to detail and nuance is apparent in conclusions like this one, from page 48, regarding the political bias of the American psychiatric profession: “Then [in the late 1970s] as now, the specialty leaned to the left.”

The size of the Marxist wing of the American Psychiatric Association notwithstanding, it doesn’t seem fair to entirely discount Berenson’s effort. He may very well have put a lot of time into researching the book, and he does dive quite deep to find the answers he’s looking for, at least on the connections between marijuana use, psychosis, and violence. He enthusiastically shows us some of his work, not in conventional footnotes, but by taking his readers along for the trip, providing us with earnest conversational references to his sources, in place of a single useful citation. With good reason, the lack of traditionally-sourced documentation (there’s not even a bibliography!) has been a major source of contention from his critics, including my fellow commenters on this roundtable.

To be sure, a diligent researcher could certainly check his references to published studies (which they have) and some of the court cases that he discussed. Surely, if one of his readers was interested in looking at the correlation between a primary diagnosis of psychosis and a secondary diagnosis of marijuana abuse or dependence in the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project (HCUP) statistics, they could just pop down to NYU to visit Berenson’s comically overutilized data analyst Dr. Sanford Gordon.

But they won’t.

Instead, readers will rely on their preconceived notions to determine how they will react to Berenson’s conclusions. And this is where Berenson’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, needs to be held to task. Despite the amount of effort put into the project by its author, research doesn’t always pan out, and it doesn’t mean a publishing company has to bring it to life. I can assure you that none of my research dead-ends on marijuana intoxication have even been solicited by a vanity press, much less the likes of a major house like Simon & Schuster.

Rather than sound conclusions, Berenson employs an odd, almost populist tone throughout the book, including, as the back of the book jacket proclaims, the oft-used device of providing “hard yes or no answer[s]” to what are ultimately “scientific question[s].” These usually come in the form of 3-6 word declarative paragraphs peppered throughout the book. A preview of this device (used twice in just seven lines on page xxiii of the Introduction) declares “Too bad it’s not true” (to the Drug Policy Alliance’s claim that it promotes policies grounded in science), and “I was wrong” (to his  initial anti-Anslingerian skepticism about finding any link between marijuana use, mental health and violence).

Seeing this device repeated so many times, with such authority, prompted equally cynical evocations of Donald Trump on my part, who, in January 2018, publicly proclaimed to be a “very stable genius… like really smart” when questioned about his mental health and fitness for office. Trump succeeds when he can get folks to agree with him, not because he makes a good argument, but because they agreed with him beforehand. Books like Berenson’s, including those that uncritically purport the pro-legalization argument, traffic in the preconceived notions of an uncritical reading public.

Regardless of the degree to which Berenson cherry-picked, manipulated, molded or coaxed his sources to confirm his hypothesis, the job of drug scholars goes beyond simply publishing well-researched and meticulously-documented monographs that have a wider appeal (a consideration recently discussed on Points by Seth Blumenthal). We also have to consider how to foster critical thinking among our wider audiences, and we should always be thinking beyond the classroom.

There is a disconnect between those who frequent public libraries and those with access to college and university libraries. This divide is a reflection of Isaac Campos’s critique of Tell Your Children from last week: that, despite Berenson’s strident insistence that no one but him knows or cares about the answers to his questions, scholars (many of whom Berenson cites and interviews) have been asking and meticulously studying these questions in and out of clinical and academic settings for more than a century.

The problem is, readers don’t know that they don’t know this research exists.

There are no clear solutions, as Campos rightly points out, to the problem that scholars’ arguments are often too complex and nuanced to be boiled down into tweets (or five word declarative paragraphs). I have recently argued that the colloquial “research” stammered out in episodes of Comedy Central’s Drunk History, in its incoherence and apparent unreliability, provided space for critical analysis, but I stopped short of condoning pre-class bottles of scotch. But it is worth thinking more critically about how our potential audiences receive our work (more than simply wondering whether they will receive it at all), and to be willing to admit that the wider audiences we seek are not usually prone to reading footnotes. But instead of caving to the popular whims of eschewing footnotes entirely, as Berenson did, we might consider new ways of drawing readers to footnotes in a manner that also helps them to become critical observers.

Whatever the solution, historians absolutely need to be taking issues of trade publication, popular history, and access to public audiences (at places like public libraries) as serious concerns. We need to think about how to communicate our complex research conclusions to a more receptive public audience, one that exists beyond academia. The popularity of Alex Berenson’s shallowly-researched and hastily-written screed should serve as yet another wake-up call to the academic community that our research is much more important than filling out a CV line or making tenure. Instead, scholars need to play a role in shaping the public discourse. We just need to find ways of doing so efficiently while simultaneously resisting the Berensonian approach.

And I think THAT conclusion is pretty clear.

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