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Life Arts

"The House I live in:" America's Slow Motion Social Holocaust

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Eugene Jarecki has produced a masterpiece of a film called "The House I live in." It is one that explores the multi-sided, multi-faceted problems of the meaning and consequences of America's War on Drugs.

I believe few who have seen the movie will disagree that the movie does a masterful job of using the drug war to expose and then to meld into a single fabric, the context, the subtext and the pretext of American society into a single blended narrative that constitutes a template for how American culture deals with its intractable social problems, a template that Jarecki himself compares with Hitler's final Solution.

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The first half of the movie is the familiar history of America's drug war. That history contains many things that we Americans still pretend not to see or know about ourselves, and the way we have allowed our society to prosecute the drug war in our name. But this dark side of our contemporay history makes up only one component of the three components of the movie. 

The context is the eye level view of what is actually going on at a conscious level on the front lines of the drug war -- mostly on the streets and in the homes of America's inner city black ghettos everyday. But there are two other facets of the movie that are of equal importance and that I guarantee will set the viewer's mind on fire: First, there also is the subtext -- the much deeper themes that make up the root causes of the drug war, themes that attempt to answer the question: Why do Americans needs drugs so much more than most other cultures anyway?  And then it also tries to answer the question of how and why the use of drugs, and the drug war itself seem to fit so comfortably into the American way of life? 

Second, and finally there is the pretext, which is the collection of rationalizations, that allow us to continue pretending that we do not know or understand the causes or the consequences of the war on drug. Among such rationalizations is the pretense that we are unaware that we have willingly given our collective permission to prosecute the war in the destructive manner in which it is presently wreaking havoc on our society. The pretext of course is designed to give the whole sordid affair an air of innocence, a nervous looking public façade, a public face that does not disturb our everyday image of what our society is and how it works. It is the minimum collective self-image that we can live with unaided, that is, without feeling guilty about what we are allowing to happen in our names and with our permission. In short, we are content to allow the drug war to go on so long as it happens just beyond our collective peripheral visionand  just outside our consciousness. 

And as if this three-part variation on the themes of the drug war were not already enough, this director comes up with his own rather startling fourth part, where he comes to a very logical but surprising conclusion: That the set of steps the U.S. uses to prosecute the drug war actually parallel the same set of steps and follows the same logical trajectory that Adolph Hitler used to arrive at his "final solution" of the Jewish problem. This conclusion is a disturbing one for all the right reasons, and therefore is not one to be taken lightly since it is advanced by a man who lost most of his own extended family in the European holocaust.

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Now allow me to now to try to explain each of these four parts of the movie in turn: 

The Context of America's Drug War

Jarecki's history is straight forward and tells us for instance that the casual use of cocaine, marijuana, and opium once was an exclusively white recreational preoccupation. At the turn of the last century for instance, all three drugs were used frequently as elixirs and home health remedies and at this time, it was done without any social stigma or sinister connotations attached to them whatsoever. Indeed, as is well known, cocaine was even a part of the original formula for the popular soft drink, Coke Cola, which is how it got its name. And, as well, the famous Psychiatrist Sigmund Freud both took the drug himself and administered it to his patients. 

However, as with many things that have been criminalized in American society, casual drug use became problematic in the racist white American mind only when it also became associated with interracial social contact generally, and with interracial black male on white female sex in particular. The movie shows how this familiar threat to uproot the American social order proved again to be the ultimate "boogey man," tone that scared and was exaggerated out of all proportions the fears hatched in the white racist mind. This well-known trope of fear-mongering was done over an extended period of time that covered the little remembered race-mixing of the prohibition era of the "Roaring Twenties," its acceleration during the Harlem Renaissance, and its continued increase during the Jazz Age of the 1940s and 50s, and its high point during the Civil Rights Movement, and the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s. 

The draconian measure of criminalizing the use of all recreational drugs came to a head and was seen as a societal imperative by religionists who had long been pushing for stricter temperance measures, and then by racist demagogic politicians, especially those from the South, who supported the Church in its efforts to equate drug use with the ultimate sin. And as a result of this coalition of forces, the push to criminalization drug use never let up, It was a natural social force sure to gain support among winning white voters to what was seen as a Christian cause. It wasn't until the civil rights upheavals of the 1960s, and Nixon's "law and order" scare, that the drug war fully took root nationally. And of course, the "crack cocaine" breakout in the 1980s made matters infinitely worse and more urgent.  This is when Ronald and Nancy Reagan seized upon the drug war mantra of "just say no" as the moral centerpiece of Reagan's presidential tenure.

In short, in the context of this movie, the director gives us a factual and indeed a rather graphic history of the drug war. He does this by following up the descriptive history with a corresponding human history, one in which the life trajectories of several inner city victims is followed. And then by interviewing, in parallel, those on the other side designated to fight the war on drugs at its front lines, the so-call "first responders:" the police, the DEA, the social workers, NARCs, parole officers, and prison guards. 

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What we learn from this part of the history is what we already have long known but continued to pretend not to know: That after 40 years and one trillion dollars of U.S. tax money, 45 million arrests, and 2.5 million Americans filling up our prisons, the war on drugs is still exactly where it began when President Richard Nixon declared it in 1971. 

We learn that, with the exception of the millions of lives of the families that have been destroyed either as a result of the drugs themselves, or more likely from the massive collateral damage of having the family's primary breadwinner in prison for long stretches of time, and the fact that nearly all of U.S. inner cities look like bombed out WW-II air raid damage, there are no positive results have accrued to American culture as a result of the drug war. This lack of any discernable positive results after 40 years of fighting the war, naturally begs the question: Could U.S. society have possibly been any worse off without having fought the war at all?

But this is not the most important message we get from Jarecki's history of the drug war in this film. Here we also learn in relief, that in the end, the drug war fundamentally is not about drugs at all, but is about lots of other societal things that animate American culture: like advancing the development of a new prison-industrial complex; about continuing to promote a broken-down embarrassingly unjust and cruel criminal justice system; about the trillions of dollars pumped into the U.S. economy illegally from illicit drug profits; and most importantly about how the U.S. uses the drug war to further as a shield to further divide U.S. culture into the "good guys" and the "bad guys,"  the "worthy" and the "unworthy"; into "winners" and "losers," into "job creators" and "slackers;" and as always, into the whites and the non-whites. 

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Retired Foreign Service Officer and past Manager of Political and Military Affairs at the US Department of State. For a brief time an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver and the University of Washington at (more...)

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