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short & insightful writing about a long and complex history

Joint Blog of the Alcohol & Drugs History Society and the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy

ttravis | January 20, 2011

Points (n.)

1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.

Rural Distilling in Burma and Nigeria

A Rural Distillery in Inle, Burma

On a visit to Myanmar/Burma in late December I toured the region surrounding Inle Lake, well known for its spectacular beauty and villages on stilts.  A boat trip to the southern reaches of the lake took us to a regional market and to several temple sites—and to a local distillery.  We were welcomed by the owner, a man in his 30s who was in the third generation in his family to operate the business.  He gave us a thorough description of the distilling process:  outside in large metal vats about the size of garbage cans rice was cooked.  The cooked rice was then transferred into the main distillery building, dirt floor and about 50 feet long with a thatch roof and woven bamboo walls.  There the rice was mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment into rice wine in large pots.  After several days these were heated and the steam moved through 10 foot pipes to pots filled with cool water.  The distilled rice liquor then dripped into pitchers.  This liquor in various strengths was then decanted into bottles labeled “Best Jungle Wine.” 

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RehabTV?

Television narrative has long mined drug and alcohol use and abuse for inciting incidents. As a plot device deployed to inaugurate conflict within a television narrative, drugs and alcohol can really do the trick, whether for single episodes or for multi-episode story arcs. In a dramatic series, this or that beloved character might become addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a situation comedy might devote a “very special episode” to the impact of drugs or alcohol upon one or more of its characters. Crime shows, in particular, are especially drug- and alcohol-dependent, with intoxicant related crimes contributing myriad story arcs for shows as historically and stylistically diverse as Dragnet, Police Woman and The Wire.

Yet within the last decade or so, several emerging televisual subgenres have begun using drugs and alcohol as a narrative device in ways that might prove historically significant. While a full accounting of the ways drugs and alcohol manifest on contemporary television screens certainly exceeds my task in this brief comment, several noteworthy ways that contemporary television narratives “use” drugs and alcohol warrant consideration. (For the purposes of this discussion, I employ the term “television narrative” to address a diverse array of televisual genres, including both scripted dramas and comedies alongside what is widely referred to as “reality” tv, the myriad documentary television programs which, though ostensibly “unscripted,” nonetheless utilize a range of editing and production techniques to sculpt the dramatic action internal to each episode and, often, across the span of a multi-episode “season” of programming.)

The three subgenres I would like to highlight are, in turn, domestic dramas of narco-trafficking; “drunk girls gone wild” reality shows; and, perhaps most ubiquitously, RehabTV.

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On Moving Beyond “Context”

Perhaps it is because I teach in a medical school, rather than a traditional academic history department, but over the past two years I have become increasingly interested in thinking about how historical scholarship can directly contribute to solving current problems. When people discover where I teach they often ask me, in a somewhat quizzical way, what I actually do. How do I spend my time? What do I contribute? Why have a historian at a medical school at all?

It’s a good set of questions. I typically respond with something about “context”  – how history helps us understand the present, or raises interesting questions about the direction we are going, or some other such formulation. This is all true, of course, and its important. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think in these terms. But I have also started to wonder if historians can do more – and, if we can, whether or not we should. So, I’ve started to ask myself: what can historical scholarship contribute to the design and implementation of health interventions? To the crafting of public health policy? To the definition and measurement of quantifiable problems and outcomes? To the generation of grant money? Can historians do more than talk about the past in order to provide “context” for the labor of others? And should we?

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The Points Interview: Mark Schrad

The second installment in our continuing series of author interviews features Mark Lawrence Schrad, author of The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave (Oxford University Press, 2010).  Mark Schrad is currently Assistant Professor of Political Science at Villanova University.  After checking out the interview, readers may also wish to learn more about his current book project, Vodka Politics.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

Most people think of temperance and prohibition as a uniquely American phenomena, but as I demonstrate in The Political Power of Bad Ideas, temperance was one of the veryCover of Mark Schrad's Bad Ideas first transnational social movements, and was truly global in scope. Moreover, nationwide alcohol prohibition was adopted in ten other countries and countless colonial possessions in addition to (and in most cases even before) the United States, all with similar disastrous consequences, and in every case followed by repeal.

On the one hand, my book places the American experience with temperance and prohibition in its proper international context. On the other, I use this seemingly bizarre global event—the rapid international diffusion of a “bad” policy idea in the form of prohibition—to say something about how ideas travel, and how they are filtered within different domestic policymaking structures.

With these dual objectives in mind—one historical, and one theoretical—the book doesn’t read like a standard historical monograph.

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Drug Law Exceptionalism?

One of the rewards of blogging is an instant boost to your awareness of what others are doing with the same sort of forum.  Among other places, it’s led me to Mexican Opium, a (short-term?) blog project by law student Mikelis Beitiks.  I’m sure my co-Managing Editor would be happy to learn that the blog is at least partly a forum for work that wasn’t published in traditional journal format.  For me, I’m happy to see more work being done on the legal foundations of our war on drugs.  Here’s why:

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The Points Interview: Daniel Okrent

Author interviews will be a recurring special feature on Points, and our first foray into the genre is with Daniel Okrent, author of Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition (Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

But what about the Bronfmans?

LAST CALL tells the difficult-to-believe story of Prohibition— how a surprisingly diverse coalition of organizations united to achieve the unlikely goal of amending the Constitution in a way that limited personal freedom; how the 14-year reign of Prohibition altered American politics, economy, jurisprudence, and social life; and how a combination of failed implementation policies, official corruption, and the devastating economic effects of the Depression brought about Repeal. In short, my book seeks to answer three simple questions: How did it happen? What exactly was it? And how did it end?

What do you think a bunch of alcohol & drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

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Doing Drug History from a Drug War Zone

A Student Murdered

One hot morning last May, the El Paso Times brought news that many of us had been dreading—a student from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) had been murdered in the drug-trade violence that has disrupted our neighbor city, Ciudad Juárez, for three years.  Like many UTEP students, Alejandro Ruiz, 18 years old, lived a binational life.  A dual citizen, he lived mostly in Juárez, but commuted to UTEP.  On that day last May he and a friend were traveling from a boy scout meeting when their vehicle was riddled with machine gun fire.  His murder, like almost all the killings (more than 3,000 in 2010 alone) remains unsolved and unexplained.  Although Mexican political leaders have tried to dismiss the dead as criminals and effectively erase their existence, one thing seems certain, Alejandro himself had no direct involvement in the drugs trade.  We are left only to speculate.

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Starting Points

Points (n.) 1. marks of punctuation. 2. something that has position but not extension, as the intersection of two lines. 3. salient features of a story, epigram, joke, etc.:  he hit the high points. 4. (slang; U.S.) needles for intravenous drug use.