The Points Interview: Mark Lawrence Schrad (Volume II)

Editor’s Note: Points is pleased to welcome back Mark Lawrence Schrad, an assistant professor of political science at Villanova University. Schrad last talked to Points about  The Political Power of Bad Ideas (Oxford University Press, 2010). This time, he’s here to reflect on his 400-year history of alcohol and Russia, Vodka Politics: Alcohol, Autocracy, and the Secret History of the Russian State (Oxford University Press, 2014).

shapeimage_2Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

This should come in handy, since in a couple of weeks, I’ll be giving a book talk at my favorite bar. So, here goes:

Walt—my bartender’s name is Walt—you’ve been slingin’ booze here for umpteen years. Have you ever wondered why all the Russians who come in here pass on the wine list and skip past your world-class beer selection just to choke down shot after shot of vodka until they pass out on the floor? There’s a reason—and it’s not that drinking vodka is hard-wired into Russian DNA. Russia’s societal alcoholism has its roots in political and economic decisions made by the autocrats in the Kremlin over the past 400 years.

Imagine that you were a bartender in imperial Russia a few hundred years ago, Walt. First of all, you’d be a state employee, since the alcohol trade was a state monopoly. Your training on day one began with taking an oath—kissing the Orthodox cross—dutifully swearing to maximize the revenue to your sovereign, the tsar. Also, you’d be a pretty ruthless pawnbroker—if some drunk ran out of money while drinking at your tavern, you could easily convince him to sell his shirt, pants or any other worldly possessions to you in exchange for another drink. You were kind of a dick, Walt—why would you do that?

Anyway, back in the seventeenth century, the imperial tavern had all sorts of drinks: fermented wines, beers, ales, porters, and meads, in addition to this new, distilled beverage that the locals called vodka—or “little water.” But since the cost of distilling and selling vodka were just pennies on the dollar—or kopecks on the ruble—it was far more profitable to sell distilled vodka to the local drunks than milder, fermented beverages. Over decades and generations, vodka elbowed-out all of the competition in the taverns, because it had the greatest profit margin for the state. Plus, Walt, your local drunks couldn’t really tell if you watered it down, so you could easily siphon off some of the vodka, sell it on the side, and pocket the dough. But you’d never do that, right?

So since vodka was so central to the state and its finances, any attempt to reduce consumption of vodka—from tsarist Russia straight through the 1980s in the Soviet Union—was seen as an unpatriotic political attack against the state itself, and ruthlessly suppressed. That’s why your Russian customers drink that industrial chemical, Walt, rather than anything more palatable.

Since alcohol plays such a major role in Russian culture, politics, and history, the book then gives you an overview of Russian history—from Ivan the Terrible through the 2012 re-election of Vladimir Putin—through the lens of vodka. Think of them as beer goggles for Russian history—but when viewed through this lens, even some of the most confusing historical developments actually come into sharper view.

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The Points Interview: Museum of the American Cocktail

Earlier this week, I sat down with Liz Williams and Philip M. Dobard of the Museum of the American Cocktail. Liz Williams is the president and director of the SoFAB Institute, which is the Museum of the American Cocktail’s parent organization. Philip M. Dobard is the Vice President of the SoFAB Institute and director of SoFAB Media.

The Museum of the American Cocktail is slated to reopen on September 29th, 2014 in its new location on O.C. Haley Boulevard in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The Museum of the American Cocktail includes an extensive absinthe collection.

The Museum of the American Cocktail includes an extensive absinthe collection.

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Borders, Boundaries & Contexts: Defining Spaces in the History of Alcohol & Drugs (Alcohol and Drugs History Society Call for Papers)

G.E. Bula, Gospel Temperance Road Map, 1908 (Library of Congress)

G.E. Bula, Gospel Temperance Road Map, 1908 (Library of Congress)

Papers and panel proposals are invited for an international conference on the history of alcohol and drugs to be held at Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH, USA on June 18-21, 2015. Panel proposals (3 x 20-minute papers) or individual papers (20 minutes) are invited.  We will also consider proposals for fringe sessions using non-conventional formats e.g. screenings, debates, demonstrations etc.

Borders, Boundaries and Contexts seeks to break down barriers in the historical study of drugs and alcohol, encouraging transnational approaches and methodologies that transcend the singular focus on alcohol or drugs. The Program Committee invites proposals for individual papers and complete panels exploring how:

  • spaces, boundaries and borders – physical, legal, chronological, psychological, or ideological – have influenced the history of alcohol and drugs;
  • contexts, spatial or otherwise, have shaped the production, consumption, imagination, or regulation of alcohol and drugs;
  • particular “spaces” have defined eras, episodes, or issues in the history of alcohol and drugs.

Proposals from advanced graduate students and recent PhDs are particularly welcome, as are submissions on topics beyond North American and Europe, along with papers and panels that focus on periods before the modern era.

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Crack, Reefer, and the “Subway Vigilante”: The Strange Saga of Bernhard Goetz and Other Loathsome Tales

Much as with most things, perspectives of the War on Drugs vary based on one’s personal experience, awareness, and in some cases, empathy. The saga of Bernhard Goetz—coined the “Subway Vigilante”—illustrates this reality all too clearly. His story also highlights the fluid nature of such perspectives and the apparent primacy of personal experiences more often than not.Goetz. DEATH WISH SKETCH From Death Wish style tough guy to War On Drugs softy, Bernhard Goetz and his wildly erratic perspectives of the War on Drugs (and crime) call to mind the slogan Burger King recently ditched: “Have it your way.” As with the 40-year slogan, nothing lasts forever.

Goetz crime scene

Crime Scene of the Goetz Shooting.

In a prelude to the backlash against crime and drugs of the Crack Era, Bernhard Goetz boarded the 2 train in Manhattan on December 22, 1984. Goetz knew the subway to be a dangerous place as he alleged he had been mugged three years earlier. Unsatisfied with the punishment of criminal mischief handed down by police, Goetz vowed to measure out justice himself in the future. The police simply were not doing enough. As such, Goetz boarded the 2 train that day with an unlicensed revolver. He then fired the revolver five times at four young, black teenage boys from the Bronx. This time Goetz alleged he believed the boys had been preparing to mug him. Goetz seriously injured all four boys, permanently paralyzing one of his victims. The subsequent trial and appeals would last well through 1986 remaining a constant source of debate amongst New York City residents and the broader national public.

Goetz quickly became a symbol for those fearful of urban disorder and the poor, nonwhite “underclass” they sought to scapegoat. Despite the reality that all four boys were unarmed, their fearsome criminality came to be a dominant subject of conversation in the case after one of the boys—James Ramseur—was later arrested for raping and robbing a young woman. The other three boys were somehow guilty by association in the minds of many. Whether this is because they were with Ramseur that day or simply because they were young, poor, black Bronxites is another question. Continue reading

Rated “SA”? Jack Valenti and the Skirmish Over Movie Ratings in the Reagan Era

What is inspiring the relaxation of social mores regarding marijuana use? Today, theories abound. Perhaps anti-marijuana laws are too expensive to enforce. Or: a growing number of Americans have tried marijuana, and consequently, come to view its health effects as relatively benign. According to Nancy Reagan’s supporters in the mid-1980s, one driving force for pot permissiveness could be easily pinpointed: Cheech and Chong.

Reagan’s anti-drug campaign is well documented. Her campaign stops, speeches, and talking points are spread across more than three series in the Reagan Presidential Library (which was where I got the idea for this post). Likewise, many authors have covered the political debates about depictions of sex and violence in the 1980s, noting that media moguls almost always managed to outmaneuver their critics. Today’s post describes a forgotten episode in this moral epic: in 1985, Reagan’s anti-drug allies urged the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its ratings system and return the silver screen to its substance-free, pre-Sixties glory.

Cheech and Chong's Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (via Wikipedia)

Cheech and Chong’s Next Movie Ad, 1980. Submitted to Congress during 1985 subcommittee hearings (image via Wikipedia)

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The Points Interview: Joseph F. Spillane

EDITOR’S NOTE: Points is pleased to welcome our fearless co-founder, Joe Spillane, an Associate Professor of History and Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the University of Florida. His new book, Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform, is out now from Johns Hopkins University Press (2014).

screenshot_1153Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Coxsackie is primarily about the rise and fall of a New Deal-era reformatory for young male offenders, built in New York State. Intended to educate and reintegrate prisoners, the Coxsackie experiment quickly deteriorated into an unpleasant mix of stultifying work, violence, and racial conflict. By the immediate postwar years, the reformist vision of reintegration and social inclusion was already giving way to a racialized vision of isolation and exclusion. In this sense, Coxsackie and New York’s other reformatories reveal the deeper origins of our modern systems of mass incarceration.

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

I’m particularly interested in the role that the postwar heroin epidemic plays in the history of Coxsackie. Modest by contemporary standards, the surge in heroin use among young people in New York City between 1948 and 1951 was an important policy moment.   As late as 1937-1938, New York City recorded only a single arrest on narcotics charges among adolescents. In early 1948, however, Coxsackie received its first heroin user—by 1951, the reformatory housed roughly one hundred users at any one time. Liberal reformers were aghast, feeling that heroin addicts were not proper subjects for reformatory efforts, being effectively ungovernable in the rehabilitative context. They urged that young offenders be sent to the Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, where New York City had begun experimental residential treatment efforts. But North Brother Island would accept only “noncriminal” addicts. For those convicted of a criminal offense, then, there was only the revolving door of the criminal justice system. It is a helpful and early reminder that the real story for most young users and addicts at mid-century was not Lexington, North Brother Island, or other treatment ventures, but the banal and ongoing hardship of arrest and imprisonment.

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The Cult of O’Shaughnessy

Editor’s Note: Points welcomes guest poster, Bradley J Borougerdi. Borougerdi holds BA, MA, and PhD degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington. His dissertation, “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” presents hemp as a vehicle for intercultural exchange in the modern era.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy’s legacy looms large in the hemp liberation movement that is gaining momentum in America today. O’Shaughnessy was an Irishman of relatively humble origins who enjoyed some success as an employee of the British East India Company (EIC). He was remembered in the 19th century for successfully engineering the first telegraph system in Colonial India, an accomplishment that earned him a knighthood in 1857. Neither his obituary nor the brief biographies of him mention his career as a chemist, yet today’s hemp activists elevate him to near godlike status for his medical experiments with Indian hemp. He encountered the plant being used all across India, he said, “in various forms by the dissipated and the deprived, as the ready agent of a pleasing intoxication.” He concocted a preparation of the plant’s resin that became popular in the Atlantic world during the second half of the 19th century, but, for a number of reasons, it fell out of favor by the early 20th century. Today’s hemp activists– without acknowledging the complex nature of hemp’s place as a medicine in Anglo-Atlantic culture– describe O’Shaughnessy as an objectively brilliant, ahead-of-the-times genius. Some also see his work as living proof of a conspiracy against hemp for various economic and political reasons. Not only do these arguments demonstrate how readily history can be exploited for contemporary purposes, but the memorialization of O’Shaughnessy illuminates the complicated discourse that has surrounded the hemp plant over the last two centuries.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (via Wikipedia)

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (via Wikipedia)

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The Points Interview (Special Edition): William L. White

Foreword from the Editor: William L. White’s Slaying the Dragon: A History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, 2nd edition (Chestnut Health Systems, 2014) chronicles the history of treatment institutions and mutual aid movements in the U.S. from the eighteenth century to the present. White’s sweeping history is both institutional (he explores a variety of treatment providers and approaches) and social (he excavates the stories of silenced and stigmatized recovery groups). The book deserves a place beside David Musto’s The American Disease on the bookshelves and comp lists of every alcohol and drug historian-in-training. 

Beyond academe, Slaying the Dragon has had a tremendous impact on the recovery movement since the first edition was published in 1998. Treatment institution records are fragmented and difficult to come by. Mutual aid societies have an elusive oral tradition. To date, most historical work on addiction treatment and recovery in the U.S. has been relatively narrow in scope. Finding diverse material synthesized in a single reference text, White reflects,  “helped many people in recovery see themselves as ‘a people’ and contributed to the rise of a new recovery advocacy movement in the U.S.”– a movement evidenced by organizations like Faces and Voices of Recovery, the rise of recovery-oriented systems of care, and the promotion of the U.S.’s first recovering ‘Drug Czar,’  Michael Botticelli.

Bill White, who has been working in the field of alcohol and drug treatment since the 1960s, joined Points for an interview about the history and future of addiction treatment.

Slaying the Dragon, Second Edition (Chestnut Health Systems, 2014)

Slaying the Dragon, Second Edition (Chestnut Health Systems, 2014)

Slaying the Dragon is a master narrative of the history of addiction treatment and recovery in the US. Can you briefly recap the story it tells for us?

The opening sections of Slaying the Dragon describe Native American and colonial responses to alcohol and other drug problems, review the rise of 19th century recovery mutual aid societies (including the Washingtonians, the Fraternal Temperance Societies, the Ribbon Reform Clubs, the Ollapod Club, the Godwin Association, and various moderation societies), and then recount the rise and fall of 19th century addiction treatment institutions—inebriate homes, inebriate asylums, private addiction cure institutes, and bottled and boxed home cures for the alcohol, tobacco, and drug habits. The middle sections explore the early history of treatment for addiction to drugs other than alcohol, describe the history and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and recount the rise of the modern alcoholism movement. The final sections detail the birth and evolution of modern addiction treatment, outline historically unprecedented changes within the culture of recovery in the U.S., and attempt to extract lessons from this history that can influence professional and institutional decision-making.

Slaying the Dragon is a big (557 pages), sweeping story presented in bite-size, self-contained stories of key ideas, people, and institutions. It is written in a language and style that is accessible to people in recovery, addiction professionals, and policymakers, but it also provides a link to more than 100 pages of posted research citations for contemporary and future historians. The table of contents and a sample chapter are posted online at

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Recent News Roundup: D.C.-Criminalized Edition

As historians, we often rely on past journalistic accounts to interpret events, so it makes sense for us to also pay attention to how drugs are depicted in the news today. Not only does charting the life cycle of current drug stories place previous depictions into historical context, but it can also help us understand where we are now and how certain drugs (like marijuana) rise and fall in the media over the years.



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The Points Interview: Nicholas Parsons

Editor’s Note: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s coverage of the methamphetamine epidemic didn’t end with Breaking Bad. Here to comment on the history of meth epidemics is Nicholas Parsons, assistant professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut University and author of Meth Mania (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2013).

screenshot_1144Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand

The book is about the social and cultural history of methamphetamine in the United States. There are two main themes the book takes up.

One of them is a history of the national media coverage of methamphetamine by major news magazines like Time and Newsweek, major newspapers like the New York Times, and television news broadcast by the three major networks.  The second theme concerns changes in drug policy going back to the early 1900s, and how different drug laws have unintentionally and indirectly impacted the methamphetamine problem.

The book focuses on these two themes separately, but also examines the interplay between them. For example, the three major historical waves of national news attention towards methamphetamine (“Methedrine” from 1967-1971, “ice” in 1989, and “crystal meth” from 1995-2006) were all followed by legislative acts designed to deal with synthetic stimulant problems. I argue many of these policy changes have led to more harm than good. For instance, the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005 seems to have led to a decrease, albeit temporarily, in domestic “meth labs” where the drug is haphazardly manufactured. However, the black market for meth has evolved to meet the continuing demand, and what we’ve seen is a greater involvement of foreign suppliers, who are capable of producing more potent meth. Also, the relatively recent popularity of “bath salts” (i.e., synthetic cathinones) is likely due in part to the reduction of methamphetamine availability afforded by the 2005 law. When people cannot obtain meth, they will often replace their habit with more readily available stimulants.

I use the ebbs and flows of news attention to ask why meth has come to be defined as a social problem at different points in recent history. I also ask why there were points in our nation’s history when meth has not been in the national news to the extent that some might expect it would be. I find, for example, that in the early 1980s, methamphetamine use was at its highest level in this country, but the drug rarely made national headlines.

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