Thursday, October 15, 2009

drug users, civil rights, and A&E's "The Cleaner"

I haven't written in this blog in so long, that instead of writing an extended essay, I'll warm myself up by going over several short items in the next week or so.

1) A&E's "The Cleaner", currently the most offensive show on television re: the drug war. The main character, William Banks, played by Benjamin Bratt, is heroicized for "extreme intervention" on drug users which includes a) breaking and entering into their homes, b) kidnapping them, c) hacking into freezing their financial accounts, to name just a few of the invasive crimes the character is shown committing, actions paid for by their families or friends. The vast majority of these users are adults, which means their families have no legal power over them. If a character committed crimes like these against any other group of people, the audience could hardly be expected to have sympathy for them, but somehow the fact that these people are drug users justifies these acts to most viewers.

Note to A&E--not since fanatical first drug czar Harry J Anslinger of the 40s and 50s has the state of simply *being* a drug user been a crime. (Anslinger instituted an extralegal edict that allowed people to be stopped and searched for track marks and detained indefinitely if any were found. A lot of creative body parts used to inject at this time in order to evade the arm search, ha...(If you'd like a vivid description of this era, you can find it in Burroughs' _Junky_..) Anslinger, ironically and hypocritically enough, became a user of illegally procured morphine later in his life to treat pain from angina and an enlarged prostate gland, and distributed this drug to his friends. We also have Anslinger to blame for most of
the hysteria and misinformation about marijuana in the middle of the last century and its criminalization in the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, through the use of racism and lies about its supposed violent effects.

What's most chilling is that "The Cleaner" is based on a real life "extreme interventionist", Warren Boyd,whose methods were similar and who also avoided prosecution for them--beyond that, he's lionized in the special A&E does on him and admired by many law enforcement officials. He's actually co-producer of the show, so one can't argue that the station is misrepresenting him--it obviously has his stamp of approval. In the interview I link, he claims he doesn't break the law, yet in A&E's special on him--which I didn't have the stomach to watch to completion, but even a few minutes of watching revealed this much--he himself proudly relates that he held a heroin user hostage in his house by threat of physical violence. And even in the interview, though I doubt he realizes what he's admitting, he says he's not beyond the use of fraud. He also claims he participates in "The Cleaner" to lend it authenticity--so I can't quite believe his methods are drastically different from what the show portrays Banks doing.

A dramatic and totally unrealistic gimmick that the show uses in almost every episode is to have the drug user Banks is "helping" overdose right in front of him, so he can resuscitate them. Not only is this an instance of laughably overly convenient timing, it doesn't make any sense--these are habituated users with high tolerance, so why is it that they suddenly miscalculate their doses as soon as Banks is around? Of course, this perpetuates the fiction that any drug user is one step away from death at any time, regardless of any harm reduction methods used or the user's experience,justifying any violation of their person because the drug user's situation is an immediate life or death one. It also glosses over the fact that so many of the dangers of drug abuse are born from criminalization itself--such as the fact that overdose is often due to the unreliable and changeable purity of black market product.

This is doubly disappointing to me because Benjamin Bratt is one of the few mixed race actors successfully working in TV and film today--and actually a very accomplished actor in all the other roles I've seen him in. In fact, according to Wikipedia, "Bratt has been a strong supporter and board member of San Francisco Bay Area's Friendship House Association of American Indians and Native American Health Center for years". Doubtless the fact that he's playing a character who oppresses another marginalized group is totally lost on him.

The show perpetuates the idea that drug users are somehow a special category of human being, whose rights are null and void. Despite the fact that the show purports to be about redemption and compassion, in reality it is an example of the same attitude that has allowed ultra right wing drug warriors such as Newt Gingrich and others, to suggest the death penalty for drug dealers. "People who are dealing crack and dealing heroin have zero social value and should be put to death," said one politician, expressing the core of this attitude quite well. Dealers and users have no social value like other people do, so why bother with going through the pretense of pretending we have rights? This without any consideration of the extenuating circumstances, the poverty, that has so many people depend on the black market to survive--that poverty which is itself often a result of right wing policies.

Warren Boyd praises "Intervention", another A&E show, and I'm looking forward to dissecting that show for you as well--a reality show where real life addicts are manipulated and violated.


  1. I find it telling that typical screeds about the negative cultural influence of media (whether porn or video games or TV) never addresses this, which I think is far more dangerous. From 24 to every cop show ever to this, authoritarian paternalism, not liberal hedonism, is the dominant message we get.

  2. Good point--you're right, this is only the worst of a wider trend. Out of curiosity, who are you and how'd you start reading my blog?

  3. Sounds kind of like the Saw movies, minus the fun Rube Goldberg devices.

    Seriously, in the Saw movies people are trapped in "games" by Jigsaw or one of his prodigies for some transgression that shows that they don't value their own lives and/or the lives of others. If they beat the game they are supposedly "instantly rehabilitated" (I think that's an exact quote,) if they don't, they die. Some of the trapped people are rapists and murderers, but some are adulterers or hookers. A LOT are drug users.

    I could say a lot about the Saw series.

    Good post!

  4. Yeah, Laura and John and I turned of Saw II in disgust 15 minutes in out of disgust over that. But this is worse b/c there's the pretense of compassion and concern--not some sicko life lesson. Interesting comparison, though--would never have thunked of it in a million years...

  5. Oh, I think the path that brought me here was you <- Laura Agustin <- Kerry Howley <- Will Wilkinson <- my years in the vast libertarian conspiracy.

    I'm a political theory doctoral student, currently visiting in Germany.

  6. As an an anarchocommunalist, I'm kissing cousins with libertarians, though I often violently disagree with them.

  7. (I realize I also saw your guestposts on Feministe awhile back.) As for the blog, erm, possibly - I really need to update it. Navel-gazing + constitutionalism, legal philosophy generally, anti-intellectual-'property', sex/gender stuff. (The reading group one was something of a failed experiment, alas.)

    I started as a rather typical right-libertarian econ-nerd; became disillusioned with economics as a discipline / worldview; drifted leftward; now I'm something of a left-libertarian / democratic anti-statist / who-knows-what.

  8. Hello Darling!

    I just wanted to say hello! I haven't had time yet to do more than skim your fabulous blog, but from what I have seen, I like a whole lot. Hopefully their will be more, more, more!



  9. Love the blog, been in my first semester of law school, so had to forget the world around me for a spell.

    The principle backdrop of this parental-invasive-prohibitive mindset, IMO, has always been our Puritan heritage, which has mandated that fun=evil, and work/production=godly. Drugs threaten this paradigm, hell, personal computing was invented by acid-dropping engineers at the SAIL laboratory at Stanford in the 60's, part and parcel to their theory of computers expanding human potential, rather than the dominant MIT theory of human replacement via computers (all credit to the book, "What the Doormouse Said").

    A weird mutation of this is the Anne Rand / libertarian worship of the individual and individuality. They have it right in that government authority over individuals is wrong (government authority over companies is right, because companies only exist as a function of the state), but have it so wrong in thinking that individuals and individual proprietary right reigns supreme. Their basic failing is in understanding what money actually is - one particularly divorced and overvalued part of a social contract. The proof is in the simple conundrum of the the island.

    What do you call a billionaire on a deserted island? --Working with his/her hands to eat.

    Money only has value as a social phenomenon, and without the entire social contract as support structure, is worthless. Our society happens to let resource representation mean more than the individuals that give it meaning... and is why our economic structure is so divorced from reality.

    Reality is that our planet is finite. Our economic model, however, is like cancer - it demands endless growth, with no regard to the host. How many times do we hear about needing to grow the economy? These are not just words, but a real conceptual push of how capitalism functions.

    When libertarians finally become disillusioned with economics, they generally come over to our camp, which is why anarcho-communalists (or my own blend, anarcho-socialist) are a kiss away from them. They make wonderful allies, even with their minor economics dysfunction.

    Back to the drugs. I know ground-breaking circuit designs that were LSD-inspired. Phillip K. Dick, the recent victim of near endless moviehacks of his hardcore Sci-Fi, was a paranoid meth freak from the sixties and seventies. Just because he was paranoid, doesn't mean he wasn't right. The beatniks were opioid users of prime caliber. Aerosmith only truly started sucking when they went clean.

    All of which is to say that drugs have played their part in many a person's destruction, but also many a person's creation, and just like anarchy, wears two faces: the creator and destroyer. Our destroyers help topple those things that limit and interfere with our future - institutions like slavery fell to them. But in their place the creators must perform, for nature abhors a vacuum, and so do we. This is why Jim Crow is still here, guised as DrugWar (13% of drug users and dealers are black, 75% of people in prison for drug use and distribution are black) - they might have moved from the back of the bus, but without creating institutions that would readily accepted the desegregated masses, the recently destroyed ones reformed in new shapes (or as TOPS says, from the back of the bus to the front of the prison).

    Benjamin Bratt is probably not aware of the flawed nature of the show's interpretation, because so many of us DO know someone who has OD'd, and the focus tends to be on that, rather than the couple thousand that used and did NOT OD. One has very visceral impact, the other doesn't register in our memories.

    All of this is way too much, and surely a result of me not expressing myself enough during the past five months. Wonderful blog, thank you so much for your sharing.

    One Love