DRCNet Special Features

Book Reviews

  Holy Wars

    Peter Webster

        A review and commentary on
        The New Temperance: The American Obsession with Sin and Vice, by David Wagner.
        Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1997. ISBN 0-8133-2568-4 (hc).

"By paying so much attention to the devil and by treating
witchcraft as the most heinous of crimes, the theologians
and the inquisitors actually spread the beliefs and fostered
the practices which they were trying so hard to repress."
— Aldous Huxley    
The Devils of Loudun

    By substituting easily imagined nouns in Huxley's observation about the Spanish Inquisition we arrive at precisely the correct diagnosis of the present situation in that great modern Holy Inquisition, the War on Drugs. Yet how does a writer of today go about telling such a truth, telling it in such a way so as to positively affect public opinion and those in power, a way which might help to resolve such an obviously irrational situation before it takes an even higher toll? And considering the history of such Inquisitions, is such a literary undertaking possible even in principle?
    Several recent and well-written books have each, from a different perspective, attempted to reveal to the general public and policy-makers the utter futility and tragedy of that great 20th Century fiasco, Substance Prohibition. Total Prohibition of one substance or another, from cigarettes (but not cigars) in several American States during the first decade, through national alcohol Prohibition, to the final and most ambitious of Prohibitions, the infamous and counter-productive War on Drugs, has been a 20th Century American infatuation. And such folly is now mimicked by nearly every nation on earth. Indeed, some nations with a long history of social or religious use of one or more of the presently demonized substances have now, at the behest of "International Law" foisted upon them by American Prohibitionism, introduced even more savage repression than we. The gory executions in Iran or Saudi Arabia, even for relatively minor offenses, immediately come to mind.
    Tragically also, Prohibitions have consumed enormous sums for naught, filled the prisons and ruined countless innocent and mostly innocent lives, made scapegoats of those who should have been helped, severely eroded the founding principles of democratic nations, and occupied the attention of governments and many otherwise good and intelligent leaders and politicians to the exclusion of far more important problems. And at its zenith, American Prohibitionism has now manufactured possibly the greatest mythology ever dreamed, the vision for a "Drug-Free America", if not World.
    In David Wagner's new book, The New Temperance, we are given a cogent historical and sociological analysis of "The American Obsession with Sin and Vice" to the valuable end that we may understand the present Prohibition in the much larger context of the nature and character of American tradition, religion, politics, and mores in general. Professor Wagner examines the broad scope and deep roots of the repression of pleasure and stigmatization of certain personal behaviors in America, from 19th Century Temperance and "social purity" movements onward, and shows how the present reactionary compulsion to demonize certain subgroups of the population, especially those persons identified with the ideas and ideals of 1960s "radical" counterculture, is but an oft-recurring theme in American history. As a result of such an overview we are shown that Temperance, Puritanism, and a grotesque exaggeration of the Protestant Ethic is more than a mere fad in America, and that the current war, not only on "drug use" but on a wide range of supposedly "unhealthy" behaviors, is more than a peculiar feature of the times. We discover that temperance is rather a perennial national ideology, the reigning American social paradigm which has only briefly ever been challenged or questioned by such "radical" times as the 1960s.
    Professor Wagner explains his choice of the term "Temperance" to define the paradigm under consideration, and introduces some of the major themes examined in his sociological analysis to follow:
America has long witnessed moralistic popular movements against citizens' sins and vices (see chapter 2). Because the most famous was the Temperance Movement, lasting from the 1820s to the passage of National Prohibition (against alcoholic beverages) in 1919, I draw upon this name... [It] makes sense to discuss today's behavioral control movements in terms of temperance because, like the old (anti-alcohol) Temperance Movement, they produce similar political alignments. As in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, rural fundamentalists and conservative traditionalists have become allied with urban middle-class "progressives," uniting some elements of the Right and Left... And as with the Temperance Movement of old, today's universalist claims about the harms of "immoral" behavior hide major subtexts of anxieties about social class, race, and ethnicity.

    The New Temperance shows us that the present War on Drugs, and the wider War on "immoral behavior" in general, is not something new, nor of merely peripheral importance in the general outlook of middle-class America, nor even just the next phase of a recurring American nightmare: it is the instinctive expression of American national character, especially of the fears and insecurities of that great middle class consciousness which is the backbone both of American reality and mythology. We might suspect then that the latest and most fanatical expression of that character, The War on Drugs, will not likely be reversed through logical argument or even the widespread recognition of the harm it is causing. We may understand why such excellent books as Dan Baum's exposé of Drug War folly in Smoke and Mirrors, and Richard Lawrence Miller's frightening and accurate identification of the Drug War with nascent fascism in Drug Warriors and Their Prey, (to name but two recent gems), have so little effect in bringing about change, for as we read of the history of American Temperance, we see that logic and demonstration have never been very important or effective in aborting the "poisonous germ...of Puritanism" (Wagner quoting Emma Goldman). On the contrary, the more the illogic and harmfulness of such a Religious Inquisition is exposed, the harder the proponents of Puritanism and "The New Temperance" play the game. The great modern Drug War is therefore far more the "in vogue" manifestation of a permanent feature of the collective American psyche than a policy choice, far more a collective phobia for some of the most important founding principles of the nation than a rational response to the real, if propagandized harms associated with the "recreational" use of substances other than the socially-approved ones.
    Professor Wagner begins his analysis with a seemingly innocent and even trivial observation on the fin de siècle scene we are living through:
The last decades of the twentieth century may well be remembered as a time when personal behavior and character flaws dominated the American mind. As prominent political figures from Gary Hart to Robert Packwood were brought down by personal scandals, even death seemed to provide no respite from examination of behavior and morality. The media reported on the deaths of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia and baseball star Mickey Mantle as exercises in moral diagnosis. Mantle was said to have died from too much "partying"; and Garcia, from assorted drugs, cigarettes, and food. Constant public service announcements, political speeches, and public health pronouncements urge us to "just say no" to drugs, cigarette smoking, fatty foods, teen sexuality, non-monogamous sex, and violent TV shows and music lyrics. Typically, the media have applauded such changes as reflecting the new mood of the times.

    This "new mood of the times" has been applauded not only by the media, but by practically everyone: we can almost hear the question being asked, "well, why not? Isn't this the path to a better, healthier, stronger, right-living America?" The mood appears as a sort of final push for America before entering the next millennium, a purification rite to make us clean and worthy to "lead the world" in the next century if not for all time to come. Such "moods of the times" have always been difficult to assess from within the set and setting of those societies expressing them, and it has usually required a singular diligence or temporal or physical isolation from such a society to see the often perverse nature of such collective perception. As an example, the present post-cold-war "mood of the times" was expressed to an appreciative audience by Colin Powell when he was considering running for the presidency: In a speech in Washington's Kennedy Center in August 1995 he declared (to much applause) that "America had been established by divine providence to lead the world." (New York Times). He also urged Americans to "consider themselves as a family". Americans, in their zeal of self-congratulation and self-purification, applaud heartily, and apparently do not recognize such words for what they are: the harbingers of doctrines of a master race leading, or rather ruling, for a thousand years.
    Now I am quite sure that many readers of this review will feel that it has taken a most unpleasant turn when I compare the words of Colin Powell to Nazi megalomania. But at the very least, it is a strange and even perverse indulgence indeed for a military and political figure of national importance in a country whose Constitution is based solidly on the idea of separation of Church and State to be citing "divine providence" as a justification for world hegemony, no matter how purportedly beneficent the intention. Yet there is a common denominator here between American Prohibitionism and The New Temperance, and American justification for its attempted Americanization of all life on earth.
    Although Professor Wagner does not examine directly such issues of international control and influence, such conclusions immediately follow from his statement of purpose on page 4: "This book argues the constant focus on personal behavior in America serves as a tool of political power..." Such focus also serves as the justifying ideology which allows America and Americans, not least the privileged classes in control of government and industry, to harbor the unpublicized and even unconscious conviction that the world must certainly become a better place when America will dictate the norms of economic, social, and personal behavior to all peoples. If the underlying beliefs of the nation insinuate that Americans are becoming inhumanly free of personality defects, that we are by force of those Temperance Nazis among us who know best becoming a nation which has no sin, and "drug free!" appears to be the defining characteristic of sin-free in current thinking, of course it is we who by divine providence, should lead the world. And here, I believe, we have exposed in all its elemental madness the fundamental essence and final intention of American national character as expressed in American Puritanism and Temperance, and as a result may arrive at the most obvious of conclusions, that the underlying reasons for and hidden doctrines at the root of the War on Drugs pose a greater threat to the future of free societies than all of the currently designated demons put together.
    More than any other current book, The New Temperance, despite some optimism expressed by the author, leaves this writer with the conviction that the current Holy War against drugs, against the 60s, against the least "deviance" from the ineptly named American dream, against the recognition of the many tragedies foisted on the American people and the world by the ridiculous indulgence of Puritanical extremism in America, will very probably not be overcome by rational choice or political change, but by the same kind of global crisis which united the free world against fascism in WWII, only worse: this time around it is likely to be widespread irreversible famine, disease, and associated regional military conflicts that the "West" will feel obligated to "settle" in order to secure its lion's share of dwindling resources, all this arising perhaps from climatic catastrophe or some other catalytic event. Then American Puritans will have some real problems to worry about, such as mere survival and where the next meal is coming from. At this stage and not before, I believe, will the puerile indulgence of Temperance and Substance Prohibition be overcome: it will be completely forgotten. What is most ironic perhaps, is that the states of mind catalyzed by some of the currently demonized substances have a chance, perhaps only a slender one, of reorienting the collective psychology of the people of free nations, of providing at least a mild and temporary, but perhaps cumulatively effective antidote to the very tendencies which ensure the future disasters in store.
    I would advise all who can bear the weight of such a dismal prognosis to read and study The New Temperance, for only by fully understanding the roots of our current predicament does there arise a hope for averting a great catastrophe, one which may ultimately be the beginning of the end for the preservation of the founding ideals of free societies the world over. The hell the human race will suffer through for not reversing current insanity will make even the presumed intentions of "the evil empire of communism" seem acceptable by comparison. If these seem exaggerations, I would plead that they are the necessary calls to awakening which a writer must use to attempt to bring about change in the face of such collective irrationality, and in reference to the questions with which I opened my discussion, I myself have profound doubts whether any literary technique is sufficient to the task.
    But as a small enticement to further study, I reproduce here a part of the brilliant climax to The New Temperance, in which we see illustrated all the sociological background and historical evidence of earlier chapters exemplified in the present situation of the escalating Drug War. The title of the section, "Demonizing the 1960s", itself reveals an important secret concerning the reasons for the overweening fanaticism of the Drug War. In this final chapter Professor Wagner suggests that,
symbolically, the New Temperance has served as a vehicle through which the remnants of the "60s" have been conquered and expunged. As with the McCarthyism of the 1950s, one purpose of the new social conservatism is to repress all positive memories of dissent and social unrest. Whereas McCarthyism aimed to dismantle all opposition emanating from the social movements of the 1930s, the New Temperance villainizes the 1960s. It demands an active renunciation, particularly on the part of baby boomers and former activists-just as the suppression of social unrest in the late 1940s to 1950s required people to purge themselves by "naming names." (p.11)

    (An excerpt from The New Temperance):

Demonizing the 1960s

It is not coincidental that advocates of the New Temperance have so strongly attacked behavior that they claim was at the heart of the "excesses" of the 1960s. The war on drugs and on many forms of sexuality has been fought as much for its symbolic value (i.e., as part of a strategy of eradicating the mythologized "60s") as for any of its more manifest purposes. Writing late in his life, Richard Nixon forcefully pointed us back to Woodstock as a symbolic reason for continuing the war on drugs: "Even today, when most of the prestige media have managed to crowd onto the anti-drug bandwagon, they could not help indulging in a revolting orgy of nostalgia during the twentieth anniversary of Woodstock. The smarmy retrospectives glossed over the fact that Woodstock's only significant legacy was the glorification of dangerous illegal drugs.... To erase the grim legacy of Woodstock, we need a total war against drugs."
    Similarly, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was fond of attacking the sexual doctrines of the 1960s, holding promiscuity and free love responsible for the AIDS epidemic and the widespread child sexual abuse reported during the 1980s: "We are reaping what was sown in the 1960s. The fashionable theories and permissiveness claptrap set the scene for a society in which the old virtues of discipline and self-restraint were denigrated."
    The historical events of the "60s" (in actuality including much of the 1970s) have been repainted in dangerous and frightening hues. Consider this vitriolic comment by conservative historian Joseph Conlin regarding the "60s" lifestyle: " [L]ife in the New Age communes of the 1960s and 1970s... [was like living in] 'garbage dumps' and 'hells': children smeared in their own filth for days, hysterical under the LSD given to pacify them.... [V]enereal infection, pneumonia, influenza, and the unprimitive affliction of hepatitis reached disastrous proportions."
    For many people alive at the time of the 1960s counterculture, this sinister and bizarre reconfiguration of history has a clear agenda of vilification. Of course, not everything that occurred in this (or any other) time period was positive or worth repeating. But the presence of a few dirty and sick children on a commune somewhere by no means sums up the reality of this period, any more than conservatives of the time were correct in summing up the French Revolution as primarily about terrorism and guillotine practice. The popular movie Forest Gump similarly portrays 1960s "long-hair radicals" as violent and misogynist, and the movie hero must save his girlfriend from their abuse. Perhaps there were a few more people of this sort than I was ever aware of in the late 1960s, but it is still absurd to portray "60s"-style radicalism in this way. If anything, the image of the peaceful hippie flashing a peace sign would be closer to the mood of the times. In short, the retrospective portrayal of the "60s" has little to do with veracity. Rather, it is an attempt to take the essence of the social and cultural revolution of the 1960s and convert it to one primarily of sin and vice.
    I make no claim of originality in drawing a connection between the mandatory drug testing of the current period and the McCarthyism of the 1950s. As early as 1986 a leader of the Civil Liberties Union called drug testing a "form of social McCarthyism aimed at getting rid of people who won't buy the line. It's a step away from an authoritarian society." In addition, writer Ellen Willis has observed a link between the drug test and the loyalty oath: "The purpose of this '80s version of the loyalty oath is less to deter drug use than to make people undergo a humiliating ritual of subordination: 'When I say pee, you pee."'
    What is puzzling, at first glance, about the power strategies adopted in the 1980s and 1990s is that, unlike the Palmer Raids or the HUAC hearings, they often seem to occur in the "nonpolitical" realm. Mandatory drug tests as well as other proposals to sort out and contain "deviants" have been implemented by corporate and private health providers, as have an increasing number of surveillance strategies, from identification of alcohol users and testing for HIV to scrutiny of personal life both on and off the job. The social control of the 1980s and 1990s particularly reflects Foucault's discussion of direct control over bodies, the surveillance of which has become more and more detached from political classification and discussion and placed in the hands of professionals and personnel officials.
    The urine test—along with mandatory sentencing and other severe behavioral controls central to the drug war—is a power strategy that mirrors the "personal is political" radicalism of the 1960s. It takes seriously the proposition that those who resist the dictates of power, whether or not such resistance is framed as "political" in the conventional sense, are enemies and are undermining production, public order, and rationality. Like the loyalty oath and the "naming of names," the policing of everyday life—which in schools, for example, focuses on behaviors such as smoking, speech, and sexuality—requires Americans, from an early age on, to comply with the norms of the powerful without asking questions, and to accept the right of the state and corporate power to hold their bodies captive. Ultimately, it is not important whether drug testing finds traces of a drug in a student's urine or if locker searches turn up cigarettes or guns or pornographic literature. Rather, it is the policing itself that makes the point about who is in control.
    Another key point about the role of the New Temperance in symbolically eradicating the "60s" is its constant use against members of the baby boom generation, particularly those who might be charged with having some relationship to the social movements of that period. It is not coincidental that Democratic Party politicians from Gary Hart to Bill Clinton have come under relentless questioning about their sexuality, prior drug use, and past participation in political demonstrations (although some Republicans such as former Supreme Court justice nominee Arthur Ginsburg have been caught in the net as well). Reminiscent of McCarthyism's "Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?" questions, political leaders (and many potential civic, corporate, and bureaucratic leaders) are now asked "Are you now or have you ever been a '60s'-style person?" That is, did you use drugs, engage in nonmarital sex, attend anti-war rallies, or burn a flag?
    As in the ritualized hearings of the 1950s, most members of the 1960s generation either admit guilt and purge themselves of sin or minimize their past guilt ("I didn't inhale") and promise future clean living. To some extent, liberals and former leftists have been forced, far more than conservatives and moderate politicians born before the baby boom, to actively repudiate the 1960s. And like many liberals in the late 1940s and 1950s who dissociated themselves from communism, they have, for the most part, happily obliged. Some sociologists studying the drug war, for example, have observed that, in the election campaigns of 1986 and 1988, liberal Democrats hammered home the attack on drugs far more than Republicans did, and charged government leaders with being "soft on drugs."
    The reason that Bill and Hillary Clinton, Gary Hart, George McGovern, Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda, and other leaders or public figures must constantly answer McCarthyite questions about the 1960s, and reveal their views on issues like drugs and sex, is that their opinions on these issues and their distance from the tradition of the 1960s are considered a measure of their respectability and readiness to accept political, corporate, and civic leadership. Conversely, there is little reason to question the Bob Doles and Dan Quayles whose loyalty to dominant norms has never been in doubt. But among those who have had any association with the dreaded "60s," only a repudiation of both the politics and the culture of the times is deemed acceptable by the media and political elites as a measure of their potential to serve as responsible leaders.
    Novelist Sol Yurick captures the sense of this constant need to repress the 1960s: "[T]he 60s, like some compulsive recurrent nightmare[,] still persists in the consciousness of the ruling elites. They must exorcise and reexorcise it, demand acts of contrition, to ask of its adherents that they confess that they were possessed by the devil.... We are asked to admit, once and for all,.. . [that we] were wrong, to make penance and obeisance, to hypostatize those sins into those devils now on trial."

The Drug Library Homepage

DRCNet Special Features

Book Reviews