Turn, Turn, Turn

If you’re familiar with Rorotoko, the author interview site, you’ll probably observe that we borrowed a bit from that concept in developing our own author interview format. We liked the idea of allowing authors to speak for themselves in talking about their book, and we felt it was important to leave the formal book-reviewing work to the folks at The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, who already do it well.

Drug and alcohol historians will want to take note of a recent Rorotoko interview with David Courtwright, on his new book No Right Turn: Conservative Politics in a Liberal America, which I would encourage you to read here. Courtwright’s book deftly presents his basic argument, that “when disenchanted white Evangelicals left the Democratic Party and climbed aboard the GOP bus, they discovered that it was bound for Market Square rather than Church Street.” In No Right Turn, the GOP manages consistently to dupe the moral reactionaries, while the country continues its march toward moral liberalism—a “moral revolution” in the author’s terms. When did this happen? Courtwright concedesCover of No Right Turn that some recent work pushes the timeline back before the 1960s, but he argues that the battleship of Victorian moralism still sailed at the end of the 1950s: “on fire and taking on water…still afloat, its colors tattered but unstruck. Then, the tempo of the attack suddenly increased, and it broke up and sank.” Amongst all the buses and battleships there is a provocative and well-reasoned argument here, but one which has to make a conspicuous exception for drugs and crime. There’s no way to argue, and Courtwright doesn’t, that public policy relating to drugs and crime have somehow been swept up in the tide of moral liberalism. Instead, the United States in particular has witnessed an expansion of its costly drug law, and an unprecedented era of mass incarceration. So we have a moral revolution AND a carceral revolution going on at the same time, headed in seemingly different directions. What’s going on here?

The revolutions of Courtwright’s book bring to mind a very different set of turning tales told by the late David Musto. In a 1991 Scientific American article, Musto laid out a simple version of his thesis that Americans’ relation to drugs and drug-taking was cyclical, moving inexorably back and forth from toleration to repression. He concluded: “Americans seem to be the least likely of any people to accept the inevitability of historical cycles. Yet if we do not appreciate our history, we may again become captive to the powerful emotions [emphasis mine] that led to draconian penalties, exaggeration, or silence.” Emotions are the key. Musto is arguing that people respond to drug use with powerful emotions that come from equally powerful cultural dispositions, and that these emotions lead us from the objective response to the visceral, sometimes dangerously so, before the objective pulls us back again, and so on. (1) I had always intended to ask David Musto from whence his notion of cycles came from. It sounds an awful lot like Richard Hofstadter’s mid-century emphasis on the non-rational aspects of populist and progressive movements, or perhaps John Higham’s portrait of the cycles of nativism in 1954’s Strangers in the Land, or even Andrew Sinclair’s 1962 account of Prohibition in America, Prohibition: The Era of Excess (to which Hofstadter contributed the Preface).

So we have David Courtwright’s revolutions and conflict versus David Musto’s cycles and consensus. It hardly seems fair to let Rorotoko have the last word, so one or two questions for David Courtwright. First, how compatible or incompatible do you see your revolutions and David Musto’s cycles? Second, can the drug war and mass incarceration possibly just be exceptions to the rule, or are they so big they burst the whole framework of No Right Turn—or, less provocatively, what kind of turn are they?


(1) There’s another element readily discerned in Musto’s work, which is mid-century social learning theory. Here, the process of “learning” about the harms of particular drug use tend to fade away, which leads to a forgetting of what had been learned. This forgetting, in turn, produces a new round of consumption, the harms of which produce a new round of learning. The difference between this model of use, which seems fairly conventionally like a social learning model, is the overlay of emotionalism—which sends both learning and forgetting moments even farther in either direction.

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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