On the latest episode of Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Points blog, hosts Alex Tepperman and Kyle Bridge offer their thoughts on the ways domestic and international drug use are portrayed in American media. But first, for months listeners have been submitting questions for our expert Q&A series. Kyle opens the episode by asking Bob Beach (firstname.lastname@example.org), a doctoral candidate at SUNY Albany and frequent Points contributor who studies cannabis use and policy before the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, a simple question from a curious listener: why is weed illegal?
Be sure to check out the Pointscast Twitter and Facebook pages and listen to other episodes on Soundcloud! If you have questions for our Q&A series or general comments on the podcast, please email us at email@example.com
The latest episode of Poinstcast is now available on Soundcloud for your listening pleasure! On this episode, Alex and I introduce a new segment, the Paper Chase, where we unpack the cultural meaning of even silly-sounding news from a not-so-bygone era. We end with a discussion of the “lovable drunk” television trope, particularly on The Bachelor and other reality (“reality”) shows featuring heavy alcohol use. Join us for a meandering conversation about dogs on marijuana, a purported heroin Queenpin in 1940s Chicago, and whether Barney Gumble and Karen Walker are held to a gendered double standard.
Most of the time, podcasting is a one-way street. But we at Pointscast, the first, best, and only podcast of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, want to know what you want to know about the history of drugs (illegal or otherwise). We’re actively soliciting questions for our network of experts to answer on the air. Do you want to know more about alcohol Prohibition, the Opium Wars, why particular drug epidemics come and go, or how authorities got the idea that “Reefer Madness” was onto something? Are you curious about how historians of illegal activity do their research? Would you like to start your own project but you don’t even know where to begin reading? Chances are we know somebody—or know somebody who knows somebody—who can hook you up. Submit your questions on this site, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, post on or message our Facebook page, or find us on Twitter. Also stay tuned to the ADHS Points blog for updates and new episodes. In the meantime, check out our back catalog on Soundcloud; it might inspire a question for our next installment!
Points is incredibly excited to announce that our assistant managing editor Kyle Bridge and Alex Tepperman, PhD candidate in history at the University of Florida, have launched a new podcast called, naturally, Pointscast.
Deputing here is the first episode, which discusses drugs and alcohol in the news, and features interviews and some really excellent sound effects.
Viewed from the outside, many proponents of the War on Drugs seem intransigent in their views simply because they find it difficult to allow any new argumentation or evidence to affect what they’ve deemed a moral issue. Much as temperance was in the 1920s, those who support the American government’s battle to retain strict drug laws with severe punishments are undoubtedly engaged in a symbolic crusade (to borrow a term from Joseph Gusfield). Essentially, their support exists in the name of continuing counterproductive and often irrational public policies because, to many, such laws and strictures symbolize something more, something deeper. Many Americans don’t see the loosening of drug laws as a utilitarian means of harm reduction, but as a retreat from the “traditional” values from a morally cohesive age that never really existed.
To be fair, moral crusades regarding drug use are far too complex to be simply be reduced to the simplistic regressive, anti-modernist picture I just provided without heavy qualification. While it is true that the struggle over the meaning of drug laws remains largely politically partisan in American society, one need only look to the news to see how the issue of drugs, government oversight, and moralism can be reframed in a much more complex way. With the recent investigations of Lance Armstrong’s doping and illegal prescription drug muling coming to a close this week, one finds no clear political delineation among the cyclist’s supporters and opponents. Positions on drugs within the Livestrong Industrial Complex vary, as liberals, libertarians, conservatives, and independents struggle to disentangle the implications of L’affair Armstrong.
For those not yet aware, the Plano, Texas-born Armstrong is perhaps the most celebrated road cyclist in history, having famously won the Tour De France seven times, six times after having contracted cancer in his testicles, lungs, abdomen, and brain. Armstrong parlayed his seemingly superhuman ability to perform astounding athletic feats whilst struggling with a life-threatening illness into the multi-billion dollar Livestrong charity, which works as an awareness-raising (though not really a money-raising) foundation on behalf of cancer research. As one might expect, Lance’s combination of non-partisan do-goodery and athletic acumen – not to mention his celebrity romancing – made him an enormously popular and powerful fellow in the worlds of cycling and politics.
Because it seems counterintuitive that someone should not only recover from cancer to win a prestigious endurance race, but should do so without the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) within a sport rife with said drug use, Armstrong has also spent much of his adult life under suspicion. He is undoubtedly the most famous and divisive longtime target of both national and international anti-doping agencies. Despite numerous allegations and investigations, however, Armstrong has never (publicly) tested positive for PEDs and has vigorously defended, in both the courts and the press, his personal reputation as a “clean” racer. Nonetheless, fans and journalists have continued to widely (and openly) suspect Armstrong’s use of non-detectable PEDs, including “The Clear.” Continue reading →
Early October is a special time on the college calendar. Undergrads grit their teeth in anticipation of mid-term exams, the Seminoles experience their yearly swoon, and frosh throughout the nation finally realize – not a moment too soon – that laundry machines exist for a reason. The most predictable of early autumn college rituals, however, may be the annual media panic over alcohol abuse.
This year, “butt-chugging” has titillated the media. University of Tennessee student Alexander Broughton has become something of a minor celebrity, having given himself alcohol poisoning – a .45 blood-alcohol content upon his arrival at the University of Tennessee Medical Center – through…*ahem*…anal infusion. Mr. Broughton vehemently denies providing himself with an alcohol enema. According to recent reports, he is planning on suing someone because, you see, he’s a Christian and being accused of “butt-chugging” implies that he’s gay. Or something. For their part, police are skeptical, having found a plastic bag of wine (a rose, for the record) beside pools of Broughton’s blood in the frat’s bathroom.
Does this story of alcohol poisoning, self-abuse, suspended fraternities, thinly-veiled homophobia, and frivolous lawsuits really constitute news? Probably not. You probably couldn’t find a better slice of 2012 fraternity life, though.
Weekend Reads revolves around the central idea that there is something to be gained in examining celebrity drug use and, much more importantly, the way society discusses public figures’ use and abuse of drugs. By looking at singers, athletes, politicians, actors, and others, we’ve gotten a chance to meditate on modern drug issues from a variety of perspectives, resulting in some provocative discussions about morality, hypocrisy, race, gender, class, and the law. In fact, the only perspective that Weekend Reads has not yet covered is that of the non-celebrity, the view that should matter most when we try to understand the broadest implications of American drug culture.
Most weeks, a story about someone like James Brown getting hopped up on PCP and engaging in a South Carolina-to-Georgia interstate police chase – as he did on September 24, 1988 – would be prime fodder for a column. We might retrace the way the police, the public, and the media responded to Brown’s actions before delving into the larger implications of Brown’s prior “straight edge” views toward drug use, his well-publicized support for the Republican Party, and his equally well-publicized civil rights work. In the right hands, it could be a fruitful look into an enigmatic man who, to some extent, mirrored America’s own schizophrenic relationship with drugs.
Another James Brown we won’t be addressing.
While profiling the “Godfather of Soul” would be fun, however, it wouldn’t get us any closer to knowing the perspectives of those people early social historians referred to as the “inarticulate.” By looking at James Brown, Grammy-winner and national icon, we get little sense of what drug culture looks like “on the ground.” Through a series of vignettes, however, we can better appreciate the funny, stupid, curious, and cruel aspects of drug culture. Luckily for us, the last month has seen a rash of news stories about James Brown and drugs. Not that James Brown, of course, as the famed Barnwell, South Carolina-born bandleader passed away on Christmas Day, 2006. No, the news has reported on a multitude of other James Browns, whose various drug-related misadventures can give us a more holistic of what drugs mean on a societal level. Continue reading →
To denounce a celebrity for his or her abuse of privilege is, most of the time, totally fair and uncomplicated. When Floyd Mayweather argues that he should have his jail sentence suspended because he has no access to bottled water or designer meals in the clink, one feels a justified contempt for the boxer. Or when Lindsay Lohan, a DUI recidivist, argues that she should not have to serve the fraction of a sentence a non-celebrity would have received because she’s followed most of the strictures of her parole requirements, one is right to scoff. Mayweather and Lohan’s actions are the baldest form of American aristocracy – millionaires’ expectations that not only should they not be punished for their crimes in a manner commensurate with the treatment of “little people,” but that the court should not even feign equal treatment under the law. After, Lohan wasn’t making the case she was living within the confines of the law but, rather, that she shouldn’t have to.
Stories like Mayweather’s and Lohan’s provide Americans with a certain schaudenfreude. There is an undeniable pleasure in seeing callow, self-satisfied one-percenters run afoul of the law and, in turn, have society remind them that there are greater forces than their chequebooks at work in this world. Put another way, the 99%’s collective enjoyment of celebrity imprisonment makes us all momentary Marxists. In savoring the stupidity, hubris, and punishment of the privileged, we feel a collective satisfaction that mitigates the frustration felt over the preposterous rewards given to people who make the most paltry of contributions to society.
Apple’s most famous moment (don’t worry, we’ll get to it…)
On the surface, Fiona Apple fits into the mould of a celebrity whose downfall we might enjoy. A singer-songwriter who has been a millionaire – with all of money’s attendant privileges – for her entire adult life, Apple is the latest star to make the case that she has been unjustly treated by “the man” after being arrested for – and admitting to – breaking the law. In most cases, I myself would mock Apple for the misplaced chutzpa she showed in trying to transport drugs over the Mexican border, as well as for her subsequent eagerness to whine about being caught. As is sometimes the case, though, the implications of Apple’s case are a little too complicated to allow for pure schaudenfreude. Continue reading →
When Karl Marx claimed that history repeats itself twice, “first as tragedy, then as farce,” he didn’t have synthetic testosterone or Major League Baseball in mind. Nonetheless, the American public has seen Marx’s principle on full display in their sports coverage over the last two weeks. Mirroring last March’s moral pandemic about Milwaukee Brewers’ outfielder Ryan Braun, we have seen, over the past fortnight, a succession of similarly irate commentaries about San Francisco Giants’ drug-using outfielder Melky Cabrera. Oddly, however, the anger shown toward Cabrera morphed into an almost carnivalesque bemusement when, just a few days later, Oakland Athletics’ pitcher Bartolo Colon was also found using illicit substances. What are we to make of these recent baseball drug scandals? Frankly, by focusing our attentions on the public’s mercurial attitudes toward Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), we can learn quite a bit about popular conceptions of trust, morality, and punishment.
Last spring, Ryan Braun, coming off a career-best year that saw him win a National League Most Valuable Player (MVP) award and make the playoffs, found himself embroiled in controversy. Accused by the Commissioner’s Office of breaking Major League Baseball banned substances policy, Braun’s lawyers successfully argued for an overturning of his 50 game suspension based on a mishandling of Braun’s urine sample by the drug tester. While Braun did not serve a suspension – he was “not guilty,” after all – pundits flayed the ballplayer for getting off on a “technicality,” as if procedural protections were simply a hindrance to the proper functioning of law. A number of busybody journalists, clearly embarrassed by Braun’s presumed PED use, went so far as to demand a re-vote for MVP, based on the presumption that Braun had hoodwinked everyone and sullied the good name of baseball. Or something.
Hank Aaron used PEDs (“greenies”). Just saying…
L’affair Braun caused a furor among the media and baseball watching public seen few times before in the game’s history. Many felt aggrieved because a “cheater” wasn’t punished (remember, he was found “not guilty”). They would never get their pound of flesh, it seemed, though it looks as if fans and the media will retroactively punish Braun anyway, ostentatiously changing drug-testing policies and denying him future MVP votes he clearly deserves. The Braun case starkly showed the lengths to which fans and the media would go to denounce drug use – but only if that drug use wasn’t loveable – in hopes of preserving their totally invented “sanctity of the game.” While the hypocrisy of such a stance is laughable on its face, it also suggests some interesting issues relating, generally speaking, to public views on drug use and abuse. Continue reading →
Earlier this week, Michael K. Williams, the actor who so memorably portrayed Omar Little on The Wire, admitted in an interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger that he had been leading a double life. While playing the Robin Hood of the modern underclass – a shotgun-wielding robber of drug dealers with a penchant for Honey Nut Cheerios – he was privately partaking in those very same drugs. Williams explains that he became addicted to cocaine in 2004 – two years into The Wire’s run – and went on days-long drug benders, stalking around Newark (New Jersey’s closest Baltimore equivalent) looking to get high. Eventually, like so many drug addicts before him, he went on to find God, as the Reverend Ronald Christian of Irvington, New Jersey’s Christian Love Church helped him kick his self-destructive habit.
This story is, on the face of it, not really unique. Williams was well aware of the problem his drug use posed, explaining how “it was just a matter of time before I got caught and my business ended up on the cover of a tabloid or I went to jail or, worse, I ended up dead.” There was nothing really transgressive in his attitudes toward drug use. What one does find interesting, however, is the fact that Williams had lived out his drug-using life as Omar. The character he played so memorably on television became a sort of shadow self. “No one who was in my circle, who knew me as Mike, was allowing me to get high. I had to slip away to do drugs,” he said, explaining why he went by the pseudonym during his binges.
What does it mean that “Michael K. Williams” lived out a secret life as “Omar, Drug User”? Certainly Williams, a graduate of the National Black Theatre, an accomplished dancer, and oft-employed actor does not share any clear similarities to the character he played on television. Nonetheless, there was something in his character that appealed to Williams’ id. To try to extricate what Williams may have seen in Omar would be the worst sort of armchair psychology, of course, but is it fair to use Williams’ experiences to ask a few questions about the intersection of crime, sexuality, and drug use?
Frank Ocean might feel Omar’s pain.
Before we go any further, it is crucial to mention that one of the more compelling aspects of Omar Little’s character was his homosexuality. Existing within the traditionally homophobic culture of the young black urban underclass, Omar was what we might call a Gay Scofflaw, an anti-hero living on the fringes of society whose sexual identity is not a function of self-hatred or deviant perversion, as homosexuality has so long been portrayed in American culture, but simply as one of many personal characteristics. Put another way, Omar Little is more Chris Keller than Tom Ripley. He’s a smooth operator with a consistent moral compass and a sexual identity that just is.
Interestingly, while there haven’t been many famous Gay Scofflaws in American popular culture, Omar Little is likely not the most prominent example of this rare archetype. Rather, that would be… Continue reading →