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Sunday, February 1, 2009

Michael Phelps, Hypocrisy, and American Drug Policy

Olympic gold medalist Michael Phelps was recently photographed using a marijuana bong at the home of a friend. The photographic evidence made a denial impossible, which led to release of the following statement today:
"I engaged in behavior which was regrettable and demonstrated bad judgment. I'm 23 years old and despite the successes I've had in the pool, I acted in a youthful and inappropriate way, not in a manner people have come to expect from me. For this, I am sorry. I promise my fans and the public it will not happen again."

Not too long ago, Chris Matthews reviewed transitioning public attitudes towards marijuana by reviewing the statements of past presidential candidates about their own drug use, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama:




And during the last campaign, Stephen Colbert made light of the supposed "hope bong" then-candidate Obama was making available to the public:


All of this would be little more than an interesting and amusing cultural trend were it not for realities such as this:
A study released [in April, 2008] reported that between 1998 and 2007 [in New York City], the police arrested 374,900 people whose most serious crime was the lowest-level misdemeanor marijuana offense.
That is more than eight times the number of arrests on those same charges between 1988 and 1997, when 45,300 people were picked up for having a small amount of pot...
...Nearly everyone involved in this wave of marijuana arrests is male: 90 percent were men, although national studies show that men and women use pot in roughly equal rates. And 83 percent of those charged in these cases were black or Latino, according to the study. Blacks accounted for 52 percent of the arrests, twice their share of the city's population. Whites, who are about 35 percent of the population, were only 15 percent of those charged -- even though federal surveys show that whites are more likely than blacks or Latinos to use pot.
Among the pretty large population of white people who have used pot and not been arrested for it is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Asked during the 2001 campaign by New York magazine if he had ever smoked it, Mr.Bloomberg replied: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." After he was elected and his remarks were used in advertisements by marijuana legalization advocates, Mr. Bloombergsaid his administration would vigorously enforce the laws.

While marijuana laws have changed over time, and while past administrations have attempted to show that the situation isn't as dire as it appears to be, drug policy in the United States is immensely hypocritical and destructive. Today, public figures justify past drug use as "youthful indiscretions" and the matter is dropped. But huge numbers of ordinary Americans are introduced to the jail system because of minor drug offenses, and as the records show, the overwhelmingly disproportionate nature of drug arrests creates a justified perception of injustice and both economic and racial bias.
Will Michael Phelps have to go to court for his actions? No. (Nor should he have to.) Will any law enforcement jurisdiction in America conduct a systematic raid of a college dorm at a prominent university with the goal of arresting everyone in possession of marijuana? Of course not. If such an action was taken on a broad scale, the arrests would likely be in the thousands. At the same time, will poor Americans, overwhelmingly minority in ethnicity, continue to be arrested by local police for the possession of small amounts of pot? Absolutely.
Before he was president, Obama indicated that he was well aware that marijuana laws needed to be reformed and that the mythology of the "war on drugs" was nothing more than a fairy tale:

But this is only part of the problem. A 2006 ACLU report documented the difference in sentencing between the possession of crack and of cocaine:

The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, passed during the media frenzy following the death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias, established mandatory minimum sentences for possession of specific amounts of cocaine. However, it also established a 100-to-1 disparity between distribution of powder and crack cocaine. For example, distributing just five grams of crack carries a minimum five-year federal prison sentence, while distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine carries the same sentence. The discrepancy remains despite repeated recommendations by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to Congress to reconsider the penalties.
Because of its relative low cost, crack cocaine is more accessible to poor people, many of whom are African Americans. Conversely, powder cocaine is much more expensive and tends to be used by more affluent white Americans.
The report includes recent data that indicates that African Americans make up 15 percent of the country's drug users, yet they make up 37 percent of those arrested for drug violations, 59 percent of those convicted, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison for a drug offense. More than 80 percent of the defendants sentenced for crack offenses are African American, despite the fact that more than 66 percent of crack users are white or Hispanic.
In the past, Obama has spoken out against the continuation of policies like this one. From a 2007 interview:
Asked if he would eliminate discriminatory laws that punish crack cocaine possession so heavily that it would take 100 times more in powder cocaine for the same sentence, Obama started off by saying the law was a mistake. He talked about his record in the Illinois Senate.
"I want to point out that I fought provisions like this and in many cases voted against provisions like this, knowing the way they could be exploited politically," Obama told the Trotter Group of African-American newspaper columnists last week after addressing the National Association of Black Journalists. "I thought it was the right thing to do. Even though the politics of it was tough back in the '90s, as a state legislator I took some tough votes to make sure we didn't see the perpetration of these kinds of unjust laws."...
...He said that if he were to become president, he would support a commission to issue a report "that allows me to say that based on the expert evidence, this is not working and it's unfair and unjust. Then I would move legislation forward."
In that same interview, Obama linked drug problems to larger issues of economic and opportunity disparities in America:
Obama asked if he could make a "broader" point. "Even if we fix this, if it was a 1-to-1 ratio, it's still a problem that folks are selling crack. It's still a problem that our young men are in a situation where they believe the only recourse for them is the drug trade. So there is a balancing act that has to be done in terms of, do we want to spend all our political capital on a very difficult issue that doesn't get at some of the underlying issues; whether we want to spend more of that political capital getting early childhood education in place, getting after-school programs in place, getting summer school programs in place."
Obama claimed, "I'm not suggesting it's an either/or but I'm suggesting that an even higher priority for me is getting young men and increasingly young women to stop getting involved in the drug trade in the first place. And that's going to require pretty heavy lifting. That's going to require some billions of dollars of expenditure that aren't there right now."
Addressing the economic and social situations which encourage people to use and sell drugs is critical. But it is also important to take advantage of changing public attitudes in order to do away with hypocritical drug policies that undermine public faith in an impartial justice system and disproportionately harm segments of society which are already teetering on the brink of collapse. Public apologies like those issued today by Phelps ring hollow because he will not be persecuted for his actions by either a court of law or the court of public opinion. The fact the he feels he must apologize is simply an effort to pay homage to past American mores that no longer impact private behavior. But those mores still impact drug policies, policies that continue to hurt citizens to this very day. Some steps to mitigate the worst impacts of these broken laws, like those governing sentencing for crack/cocaine offenses have been taken in recent years. Let's hope that President Obama, who saw the impact of bad drug laws first-hand in Chicago, will continue these reforms.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Pragmatism vs. Ideology: A False Choice

Not too long ago, Christopher Hayes ofThe Nation wrote a very thought-provoking piece about the concept of "pragmatism," which is heard constantly these days in reference to Obama's governing style. Much like the "team of rivals" concept, it has become common wisdom, repeated endlessly.
It is important that both of these concepts face scrutiny. A few scholars have started doing so with Doris Kearns Goodwin's thesis (for example, here). Along the same lines, Hayes has put forward a critique of pragmatism as an idea and a governing philosophy.
Without quoting him at length (the article is worth reading in full), what we take from it is several key points:
Pragmatism in the mind of the body-politic is the opposite of rigidity, i.e. beingnon-ideological. The Bush administration has become synonymous with this kind of governance - making decisions based upon a certain set of goals and beliefs, and sticking to those decisions regardless of what on-the-ground reality is telling us. Stephen Colbert mocked President Bush during his famous White House Correspondents Dinner performancewhen he said:
The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will.
Similarly, in 2004, journalist Ron Suskind wrote a long article for the New York Times Magazine entitled "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush." In it, he included the following paragraphs, through which the public first became aware of the administration's apparent derision of what it had labled the "really-based community":
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''
The larger idea as it relates to Hayes' piece is that the public - and most analysts and commentators these days - generally believe that when ideology trumps logic - a.k.a. pragmatism - bad policies result. This belief can be felt in public condemnations of Congressional inactivity in the face of large-scale challenges - its just politics as usual, the two side of the aisle won't work together, etc, etc. It's also one of the logical underpinnings of Obama's professed commitment to get Republicans and Democrats working together in Washington.
Within such a framework, pragmatism is the opposite of obstinacy. It is instead flexibility, a willingness to set aside one's ego to get something done on behalf of the broader society.
But Hayes takes this very notion to task. He first does away with the idea that anyone is non-ideological:

There's another problem with the fetishization of the pragmatic, which is the brute fact that, at some level, ideology is inescapable. Obama may have told Steve Kroft that he's solely interested in "what works," but what constitutes "working" is not self-evident and, indeed, is impossible to detach from some worldview and set of principles.

Furthermore, if we think more deeply about it, pragmatism is often viewed as being the same thing as cowardice, spinelessness, and amorality. It's viewed as justifying conciliatory action. Bill Clinton put forward the idea of "triangulation" during his presidency. Today, it is often derided by those on the left as justifying centrist policies (in other words, he wasn't being ideological enough). Or consider this famous historical example involving Abraham Lincoln. As Hayes writes:
Lincoln was also pragmatic about the institution he helped end: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it," he wrote to newspaper editor Horace Greeley in August 1862, "and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that." This is a kind of pragmatism that to our modern ears comes close to colluding with evil, and it shows how even the most "pragmatic" decisions are embedded in a hierarchy of values: in this case the integrity of the nation over the human rights of millions of its residents.
What is more, ideology often stands in the way of conventional wisdom which may or may not be impractical. We at times are in desperate need of ideologues to protect us from impractical "pragmatism." Take the example of the Iraq war. As Hayes writes:
[The] Same goes for the Iraq War, which many "pragmatic" lawmakers--Hillary Clinton, Arlen Specter--voted for and which ideologues across the political spectrum, from Ron Paul to Bernie Sanders, opposed. Of course, by any reckoning, the war didn't work. That is, it failed to be a practical, non-ideological improvement to the nation's security. This, despite the fact that so many willed themselves to believe that the benefits would clearly outweigh the costs. Principle is often pragmatism's guardian. Particularly at times of crisis, when a polity succumbs to collective madness or delusion, it is only the obstinate ideologues who refuse to go along. Expediency may be a virtue in virtuous times, but it's a vice in vicious ones.
Hayes rightly sees the whole issue of Obama's pragmatism as being tied up in something larger, specifically the policies he is likely to promote as President. Those on the left are concerned that he is surrounding himself with "pragmatists" who will push centrist policies. Those closer to the center - realize that we're talking about ideologues here - have applauded his cabinet appointments for their pragmatism. Their idea here is that Obama isn't going to immobilize the government through his own ideologically-driven agenda, and instead has picked smart people who know how to get something done. But this analysis is superficial, as Hayes explains:
Either way, there will be moments in the next four years when a principled fight will be required, and if there is an uneasiness rippling through the minds of some progressives, it arises from their doubts about just how willing Obama will be to fight those fights. When a friend of mine decided to run for office this year, someone suggested that he write down a list of positions he wouldn't take, votes he wouldn't cast, then put it in a safe and give someone the key. The idea was that by committing himself in writing to some basic skeletal list of principles, he'd be at least partially anchored against the slippery slope of compromise that so often leads elected officials to lose their way.
The truth lies somewhere else. As Hayes concludes, pragmatism itself requires courage and boldness. What is pragmatic at any particular time might be considered radical in another. He cites FDR's understanding of pragmatism - another president besides Lincoln that Obama is compared to, more because of historical circumstances than biography:
"The country needs," Roosevelt said in May 1932, "and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: if it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. The millions who are in want will not stand by silently forever while the things to satisfy their needs are within easy reach." That is pragmatism we can believe in. Our times demand no less.
And what we must understand is that those experiments will in turn be influenced by Obama's ideology. As a final thought, consider this except from Obama's speech at the 2008 DNC:
It's not because John McCain doesn't care. It's because John McCain doesn't get it. For over two decades, he's subscribed to that old, discredited Republican philosophy - give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else. In Washington, they call this the Ownership Society, but what it really means is - you're on your own. Out of work? Tough luck. No health care? The market will fix it. Born into poverty? Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - even if you don't have boots. You're on your own. Well it's time for them to own their failure. It's time for us to change America.
Those are ideologically-driven words. And those who agreed with the ideology, emotionally, viscerally, cheered wildly.
Ideology, Hayes tells us, isn't the enemy. It is what gives us a moral footing. He quotes Glenn Greenwald:
[A]s Glenn Greenwald has astutely pointed out on his blog, while ideology can lead decision-makers to ignore facts, it is also what sets the limiting conditions for any pragmatic calculation of interests. "Presumably, there are instances where a proposed war might be very pragmatically beneficial in promoting our national self-interest," Greenwald wrote, "but is still something that we ought not to do. Why? Because as a matter of principle--of ideology--we believe that it is not just to do it, no matter how many benefits we might reap, no matter how much it might advance our 'national self-interest.'"
The trick is to get the good of ideology - the courage needed to state one's vision boldly, and the moral rudder that comes with it - without getting the bad - a willful refusal to accept facts that don't correspond with what you want to believe. And the same is true of pragmatism: we need the good - the willingness to try new things in the name of finding something that works - without the bad - a willingness to do anything if we think it will ameliorate a problem, regardless of the moral coast.
How will Obama walk this tightrope? We will soon see.