Weekend Reads: The Many James Browns Edition

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. 

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Harold A. Mulford, Jr. — In Memoriam

Editor’s Note:  Points welcomes Paul Roman’s warmhearted reflections and commentary on fellow sociologist Harold Mulford’s life and work.  Mulford was a pioneer in the application of sociological thought and methods to alcoholism and alcohol as public problems.  As Paul’s commentary amply suggests, Hal was also a passionate and respected scholar.   

This memorial for Harold A. Mulford, Jr. will neither begin nor end with the standard statement about how much we have lost with Hal’s passing on June 28, 2012 just short of “four score and ten” at age 89.  Tapping a perhaps less common tradition, let us celebrate some of the unique gifts that alcohol social science gained by his travels with us.

Hal Mulford’s life has both storybook qualities but as a scholar, features that are absolutely unique.  Born on an Iowa farm and growing into a strapping handsome man, Hal was a hero in the Good War, with a medal-producing record of laying down the enemy with major artillery during D-Day and then fighting on through the Pacific Theater to nearly the end of the War.  After marriage and the beginning of his family, and a GI Bill bachelor’s degree from Morningside College in 1947, his eventual education at the University of Iowa led him to a doctorate in sociology in 1955.  Here he was substantially influenced by Manfred Kuhn, founder of what is known as “The Iowa School of Symbolic Interaction” wherein the somewhat elusive tenets of this perspective are put to hard-nosed empirical test.  Hal’s work continually reflected this perspective; my attempted summary of the core of his life’s work would center on his efforts to construct the symbolic and interactional world of the deviant drinker and alcoholic through scale construction.

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Disposable Citizens

In May of 2008 recent Florida State graduate Rachel Hoffman reluctantly got in her car with 13,000 dollars in cash set to buy 2 and ½ ounces of cocaine, 1500 pills of Ecstasy, and a semi-automatic handgun in a Tallahassee P.D. approved sting operation.  A few weeks earlier, two disparate events promised to change the trajectory of Rachel’s life.  First, she earned admission to a master’s program in mental-health counseling.  Second, more dubiously, Rachel found herself pinched by police who discovered 5 ounces of pot, along with assorted pills of Ecstasy and Valium surreptitiously tucked under her couch cushions. Threatened with possible felony charges of possession with intent to sell and “maintaining a drug house,” Rachel decided to cooperate.  Information leading to a mere pot bust though—authorities informed Rachel—would not be enough to make the charges disappear.  Instead, they would need Rachel to bring Tallahassee P.D. arrests netting large quantities of heroin, cocaine, ecstasy, or guns.  With little choice, Rachel unwittingly made herself disposable.  As such, Rachel took on a new, less human persona in the eyes of law enforcement.  Rachel became Confidential Informant No. 1129; one of many replaceable, interchangeable parts in the modern War on Drugs.

Rachel Hoffman

Whether Rachel’s attackers discovered the wire in her purse, or simply found the nature of her first-time purchase suspicious is relatively inconsequential.  What does matter, very much so, is that Rachel’s body—riddled with bullets from the gun she planned to buy for police—turned up 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee.  As you might imagine, the murder of a white middle-class, female, suburban college graduate garnered considerable media attention.  Hoffman’s case received prolonged coverage from Jenifer Portman of the Tallahassee Democrat, Vince Beiser of the Huffington Post, and ABC NewsThe saga of Rachel Hoffman and the overarching issue of confidential informants has now resurfaced, with the publication of Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker piece entitled, “The Throwaways.”

Far too often, confidential informants adversely effected by the modern war on drugs do not fit the description of Rachel Hoffman.  Lacking the trappings of a college education, middle-class status, and perhaps whiteness, many cautionary tales of informants go untold.  More frequently, the disposable citizens shuffled through the dangerous informant system are young people from low-income communities, often nonwhite, and sometimes underage.  The risk, and potential loss of these human lives receives less media scrutiny and legislative concern then they ought to be afforded.

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A Colombian Queen’s Tale: The End and Beginning of Griselda Blanco

Griselda Blanco, the Cocaine Godmother, was gunned down in front of a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia on September 3, 2012.  Since her initial indictments in New York City beginning in the early 1970s, Blanco has flitted in and out of the popular imagination.  Tales of Blanco emerged first in police and court documents and newspapers. In more recent years, she could be found in nonfiction, docudramas, popular magazines, blogs, YouTube, and other media.

Like other high-level female drug traffickers, Blanco created important alliances with men, but differed from her peers due to her extensive use of violence.  She employed it as an offensive tool against male competitors and even men who were employed by her or her clients.  Violence served to demonstrate her power and to strike fear in the men that surrounded her. Her ruthlessness contributed to a growing gangster hagiography and titillation that continues to surround her and those men connected to her. This explains why her death brought new attention.  Yet, Blanco’s story is another New York City organized crime tale with many twists and turns: changing criminal enterprises, licit and illicit work, lovers turned traitors, and police/criminal chases across continents.

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Lessons of the Narcotic Farm, Part VI, Reflections of an Accidental Drug Historian

It was April 2005 when I walked up to the car rental booth at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor International Airport and announced to the man behind the counter, “I’m high on cough syrup.” I had spent a year researching the history of the Narcotic Farm for a documentary with my partner JP Olsen and at that …

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CFP: “Under Control? Alcohol and Drug Regulation, Past and Present” –London, 2013

Call for Papers: “Under Control? Alcohol and Drug Regulation, Past and Present,” London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine 21st-23rd June 2013. (PLEASE NOTE NEW LOCATION!) Sponsored by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, Alcohol Research UK, the Society for the Social History of Medicine, Bowling Green State University, and Brock University. Individual papers and proposals …

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Weekend Reads: Fiona Apple Edition

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

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The Democracy of Addicts, if not of Addiction

Recently I read a brief article by George E. Vaillant called “The Natural History of Narcotic Drug Addiction” in the 1970 volume of Seminars in Psychiatry. It was based on follow-up studies of patients admitted to the federal narcotic hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, between 1936 and 1952. I was curious about how or whether it anticipated Vaillant’s conclusions in his influential 1983 book, The Natural History of Alcoholism, which was based on longitudinal data about Harvard students, working-class men, and detox patients starting just before World War II. Before getting far, though, I was struck by the second paragraph:

A Nation of In-Patients

There seem to be many different kinds of narcotics addicts and in each decade patterns of addiction change. At first glance this makes delineation of the natural history impossible. There are adolescent and middle-aged addicts; there are “criminal” and “medical” addicts; there are heroin and Demerol addicts; there are white Anglo-Saxon Protestant addicts from small towns and black immigrant addicts from urban ghettos; there are male addicts and female addicts; there are high school dropout addicts with inadequate personalities and an allergy to employment and physician addicts who self-prescribe and remain employed throughout their addiction. However, one of the conclusions of this review will be that both the addiction pattern and underlying personalities of these disparate groups are more similar than dissimilar.

Vaillant’s reference to an “underlying personality” among opiate addicts jumps out, because it is a phenomenon he concludes is absent among alcoholics in his later book. But leaving that observation aside, what captured my attention was the rhetorical shape of the long third sentence. It reminded me of a passage written a generation earlier, by Richard R. Peabody in his 1931 book The Common Sense of Drinking:

It takes all types

When we investigate any particular group, we find the most strikingly contrasted persons succumbing to excessive drinking. The rich and the poor, the highly intellectual and the ignorant, the frail and the robust, the shy and the apparently bold, the worried and the seemingly carefree, all furnish their quota of inebriates. We find that this unhappy group includes people of accomplishment as well as those who achieve nothing, the religious and the unbeliever, those with an interest in life and those without one, those who love and are loved, and those who are alone in the world.

Both of these prominent figures in the history of addiction studies drew a series of opposites to illustrate the breadth of social locations that users and boozers hail from. These soup-to-nuts sketches of the social order have been a consistent feature of addiction and recovery discourse over the years. For me, they are signs of the way that the addiction concept has remained bound at a deep level with efforts to define and reform social relations. They are moments when the effort to describe addiction invokes not just a society but a demos, the populace of a democracy.

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