The Points Interview: Barron Lerner

As Points prepares to ring in the new year, what better way than by discussing the history of drunk driving?  The nineteenth Points Interview is the last for 2011–here’s to a similarly engaging set of interviews for 2012–and features Barron Lerner, author of the recently published One For the Road: Drunk Driving Since 1900 (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).  Barron Lerner is currently the Angelica Berrie-Gold Foundation associate professor of Medicine and Public Health at the Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons and the Mailman School of Public Health.  We’re delighted to get his thoughts on his latest work.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

My book is a history of drunk driving in the United States and the efforts to control it.  It Cover of the One for the Roadbegins in the early twentieth century, when the introduction of automobiles led to the first crashes and deaths.  Appropriately, people were appalled and the first laws were
passed.  But with the “failure” of Prohibition after 1933, attention shifted from the perils of alcohol to the disease of alcoholism.  In this climate, drunk driving laws were weak and poorly enforced.  Astoundingly, the legal limit for a DWI conviction in this country was
0.15% for decades, roughly the equivalent of 6-9 drinks on an empty stomach.  All of the benefit of the doubt went to the drunk drivers, not their victims.  Finally, in the 1960s, the U.S. government got involved in drunk driving control, followed by the citizen-activists
of RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) and MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) in the 1980s.  For the first time, drunk driving was truly stigmatized, rather than being seen as an acceptable rite of passage for young men.  The last portions of the book examine both the
successes of the anti-drunk driving movement and the continued barriers to eliminating intoxicated driving in this country.  These barriers include the lobbying efforts of the alcohol industry, a libertarian backlash and competition from other public health campaigns including, ironically, distracted driving.

Continue reading →


Cross-Posting: Luís León and the “Cannabis Club”

Editor’s Note: This is the second cross-posting that Points is proud to feature from the project, a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality” sponsored by the Social Science Research Council’s Working Group on Spirituality, Political Engagement, and Public Life.  (Our first cross-posting, on Bill W. and the Big Book, appeared earlier this fall).  Today’s offering is by Luís León, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver; the spectacular lead illustration is by Joseph Mastroianni.

Joseph Mastroianni, "Exploding Creamsicle"

Counted among my pantheon of personal heroes while growing up in California’s East Bay area were Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong. I was a strange kid. I still sometimes mimic Cheech’s purposefully exaggerated Chicano accent, American English with a Spanish rhythm and Aztec intonation, also known as Calo or Mexican American “Spanglish.” It’s a sound distinct to the borderlands experience; the echo of Aztlan: the Chicana/o mythical homeland; a sanctuary; a pipe dream. When I speak like Cheech to my close friend and academic colleague, who I affectionately call Chong, we deploy a linguistic code decipherable sometimes only by us, and perhaps a few other confidantes. Referring to four twenty, I often say “los santos,” or just santos, which translates loosely as “the saints.” We conspire in our devotion to them. Like the Rastafarians, the practice becomes a sacred ritual. For us, praying to the saints, our muertos, is an attempt to connect to the divine; a gestural offering in hopes of elevating our spirits to Elysium; the mythical land of the triumphantly dead, or physically displaced, the heavenly space where the souls of heroes dwell. Aztlan by another name. This, I believe, is how my Chicano hero, Cheech Marin, understands his devotion to los santos.

It’s appropriate that Cheech, a Mexican American, would open the artistic space for the popularization and promotion of marijuana into the soul of American popular culture. Continue reading →

Counterprogramming Capra: The Points Holiday Viewing List

Editor’s Note:  Okay: you’ve read Joe Spillane’s thoughts on Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but maybe even his Points-inspired re-viewing of the film can’t get you excited about ol’ George Bailey and all that guardian angel stuff.  For all those who simply can’t stand any more cinematic Christmas cheer (Acker, Ambler, McClellan, Roizen, Spillane)– or who need their holidays leavened with some drugs and alcohol (Herrera, Long, Travis)– the Points staff offers the following suggestions.

Not-so-Righteous Dopefiend Carmen Sternwood

Caroline Acker:  In The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946), the errant ways of Carmen Sternwood (the younger sister of the Lauren Bacall character) drive the plot.  In one scene, she is apparently high on opium, which she’s been given in exchange for posing for pornographic pictures– which are retailed around town by a known “fairy,” Arthur Geiger.   To cement the image of Geiger as decadent and depraved, the photo shoot takes place in his house, which is decorated with Chinese objects; the dopey Carmen is dressed in Chinese-style garb.  The creepy Orientalist narcotics netherworld is juxtaposed throughout the film to the wholesome and alcohol-drenched realm where Bogey and Bacall do their thing.

Chuck Ambler: I’m not an expert on African cinema, but the recent arrest and eventual exoneration (after a “poop watch”) of Nigerian film actor and comedian, Baba Suwe got me thinking about whether drug use and drug trafficking are common plot lines in the hundreds of video films produced each year by Nigeria’s film industry—Nollywood.  I haven’t come up with any yet, but one could turn to Chris Obi Rapu’s classic 1992 hit, Living in Bondage (the film that pretty much created Nollywood) as a metaphor for addiction.  Like many Nollywood films, this one features lots of drinking in up-scale homes and commercial bars and cocktail lounges, but the plot turns in this movie (as in many Nigerian films) on a young man ensnared by witchcraft– and ultimately saved by Christian faith.  Many Nollywood films are available on line.

Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Do Some Blow

Brian Herrera:  Less Than Zero (Marek Kanievska, 1987).  A college freshman comes home to Los Angeles for Christmas break and discovers that he can’t fix the coke-broken lives of his friends.
Go (Doug Liman, 1999).  A drug deal gone wrong makes for a mad mad mad Christmas Eve in this comedy-thriller.
Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005).  Christmas Eve marks both the start and finish for the five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes of the year in which everything changes for a group of NYC friends (including star-crossed and drug-addicted lovers Mimi and Roger).

Amy Long: It should be noted that Brian Herrera beat me to the punch and named not one but two (!!) of the movies I’d thought of listing here– Go and Less than Zero— so in his honor I want to recommend How the Grinch Stole Christmas (Chuck Jones, 1966).  No hard feelings, though; I just had to pull a little harder to come up with the titles that follow.  Continue reading →

Where–and What– Is Pottersville?

Capra's Journey to the Dark Side

Sixty-five years ago, today, Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life premiered at New York City’s Globe Theater. The film’s release had been pushed back from January, in order to try and grab a portion of the holiday box office and secure eligibility for that year’s Academy Awards.  Although the film’s later popularity doesn’t match its initial reception, it was hardly a critical or financial bust–on the contrary, Capra’s first postwar film generated modestly positive reviews and similaraudience response.  On the occasion of this Christmas classic’s anniversary, we thought it only fair to consider it from an alcohol and drugs history perspective.

When viewed through a Points lens,  alcohol and drinking appear everywhere in It’s A Wonderful Life: Continue reading →

200 Posts–Another Points Milestone

Not that anyone’s counting, but we’ve just now passed 200 posts for the Points blog.

This is #202, to be Precise

As I noted back in July on the occasion of our 100th post, we’re no match for the production levels of older and more established academic blogs–but we’ll take the excuse to settle back for a bit of self-reflection.  Let’s think a bit about these first 200 posts, and perhaps offer up some New Year’s resolutions to go with them.

If we wander about the tag cloud for a bit, as we did on the occasion of the 100th post, we see that the most popular tags look like this:

  1. Addiction (50 posts)
  2. Alcohol (50 posts)
  3. Policy  (47 posts)
  4. History (45 posts)
  5. Drugs (38 posts)
  6. Popular Culture (35 posts)
  7. Transnational (31 posts)
  8. Research (29 posts)
  9. Drug War (26 posts)
  10. Law (25 posts)

I guess the list isn’t all that surprising–why wouldn’t the blog of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society feature “Alcohol” “Drugs” and “History” in the top five?  Moreover, the “Addiction” and “Policy” tags at the top of the list reflect another basic fact of this blog–that public policy (see also “law” at #10) and the addiction concept (see also “research” at #8) dominate the posts.  And now, two resolutions: Continue reading →

Mrs. Marty Mann and the Medicalization of Alcoholism

I’m a big fan of contradictions. Where they occur – in social movements, in ideology, in programs of action – they tend to highlight the underlying compositional character of human enterprises.  Thus contradictions also provide occasions where the contributing strands of such enterprises may be more easily separated out for examination.  (Comedians, of course, love contradictions too – because they highlight our foolishness as a species.)  Below, I examine an intriguing contradiction lodged in one of the deep assumptions of the modern alcoholism movement.

Marty Mann (middle) at Blythewood, July 4, 1938 (photo from Sally Brown and David R. Brown's biography of Mann (permission pending)

The alcoholism movement sought to popularize the notion that alcoholism was a disease or illness phenomenon.  In that sense – and understood at face value — the movement also sought to medicalize alcoholism.  Yet, Alcoholics Anonymous, whose emergence was arguably the deep underlying force in the development of the alcoholism movement, offered an essentially lay and spiritually oriented approach to alcoholism.  Moreover, whereas a fully medicalized view of alcoholism might promote the appropriateness of alcoholism treatment as offered, say, by psychiatrists, other M.D.s, psychologists of various stripes, and hospitals and clinics, A.A. arguably emerged in response to the past failures of these medical efforts respecting alcoholism’s treatment; A.A. offered an alternative to alcoholism’s past medical handling.  Hence, (a) if A.A. was the institution that, deep down, drove the modern alcoholism movement and (b) if the movement’s ideological centerpiece, the disease concept of alcoholism, sought to medicalize alcoholism, then, and therefore, (c) A.A. was fostering (albeit indirectly) an idea that ran counter to its own program and philosophy.  Go figure! Continue reading →

Holiday Gift Books II: Points Recommeds Alcohol & Drugs Non-Fiction

Editor’s Note: You liked the suggestions for novels and memoirs, sure, but let’s admit it: everyone has a dad who only wants to read non-fiction.  Here’s your chance to avoid buying him yet another hack trade book about Abraham Lincoln or the financial crisis.  Get something you might actually enjoy talking about.  The Points staff recommends the following (and hopes you’ll add your own recommendations in the “Comments”):

God Save the King

Chuck Ambler:For those with large budgets and someone on your Christmas list who is strongly motivated to learn, I suggest Dmitri van den Bersselaar’s The King of Drinks:  Schnapps Gin from Modernity to Tradition (Leiden, Brill, 2007).  As I learned at a gin tasting last summer in Berlin, Dmitri was born in the shadow of one of the Netherland’s most important distilleries, so he was destined from birth to tell this great tale of gin—from its emergence as a commodity in Germany and Holland, to its transformation into the most important commodity in the West African trade, to its eventual maturity as “the king of drinks.”

 Joe Gabriel: Marcus Boon, The Road to Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs (Harvard, 2005).  A fascinating look at how literature has been influenced by the use of various types of drugs. Meticulously researched, a pleasure to read, and filled with unexpected and fascinating insights.

The Manuscript that Started it All

Brian Herrera:  The Book That Started It All: The Original Working Manuscript of Alcoholics Anonymous  (Hazelden, 2010).  The PERFECT gift for the AA geek in your life.  Designed as a coffee table book, it entrances even the AA-phobic.

 Amy Long:  Righteous Dopefiend (University of California Press, 2009): Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois and doctoral student Jeffrey Schonberg spent more than ten years hanging out with addicts on the streets of San Francisco researching this thoroughly informed and eminently readable ethnography of the city’s injection drug users. Schonberg also took the arresting black and white photographs that appear throughout. Oversized and beautifully designed, Righteous Dopefiend doubles as a coffee table book if your friend or relative is brave (and righteous) enough to set an anthropological study of heroin and crack addicts out in the living room for guests to examine.

No Problem Drinking = No Drinking Problem

Michelle McClellan: Joshua Zeitz, Flapper:  A Madcap Story of Sex, Style, Celebrity, and the Women Who Made America Modern (Three Rivers Press, 2006).  This account of women’s changing roles in the 1920s is filled with engaging anecdotes and great illustrations, thoroughly immersing readers in the cultural landscape of the era.  Zeitz covers a lot of ground, including popular culture, celebrity, fashion, and as one would expect, drinking customs.  Several women figure prominently, including Zelda Fitzgerald and New Yorker columnist Lois Long, helping to weave together thematic elements across the book and personalize the issues Zeitz addresses.  I’m not quite convinced that anyone has fully untangled the cause-and-effect of women’s drinking in the 1920s and “modernity,” but maybe it can’t be done since historical change is, after all, messy.  In any case, I found this a very enjoyable and lively read, and it gave me a lot to think about regarding gender and drinking behaviors in this critical period. It is also a good demonstration of how drink and drug history can illuminate American history more broadly.

 Ron Roizen: If you liked W.J. Rorabaugh’s The Alcoholic Republic: an American Tradition (Oxford, 1979) then you’re no doubt also going to admire Sarah Hand Meacham’s Every Home a Distillery: Alcohol, Gender, and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2009).  If you need a preview, Meacham was one of the Points Interviews.  What I found particularly fascinating in her book was the existence of something like the (far-flung) institution of the shebeen in colonial America.  In The Language of the Heart: the Recovery Movement from Alcoholics Anonymous to Oprah Winfrey (U. North Carolina Press, 2009), Trysh Travis makes a solid effort to show how A.A. and the culture of recovery it spawned have percolated into the far reaches of American society.  Brave and useful stuff, although well worth challenging some of her historical contentions at points too.  Another crackerjack book: Jessica Warner, The Day George Bush Stopped Drinking: Why Abstinence Matters to the Religious Right (McClelland & Stewart, 2008).  I wish it had a different and less grab-ya title, but this is a very interesting study of the idea of abstinence in American life and history.  Highly recommended. And it you haven’t read it already, then you have a real treat in store with Geoffrey R. Skoll’s Walk the Walk and Talk the Talk: An Ethnography of a Drug Abuse Treatment Facility (Temple U. Press, 1992).  Skoll combines ethnography with philosophy in a compelling analysis of the often counter-productive requirements of institutional recovery.

Cuba Libre!

Joe Spillane: Tom Gjelten, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: Biography of a Cause (Viking, 2008). For friends or family who aren’t needing or wanting to spend time in the alcoholism/addiction universe, Gjelten’s book might be just the thing.  Gjelten deftly narrates the intertwined histories of the Bacardi Rum Company, the Bacardi family, and modern Cuba.  Readers interested to see how one family can seize and maintain their place in the rum business should consider the book for its fascinating insights into the political and promotional history of Bacardi.  Or, if you’d like an interesting non-academic take on Cuban history, this works as well.

 Trysh Travis:  If you know someone who’s a fan of The Wire and/or enjoyed Philippe Bourgois’s In Search of Respect, but is always complaining, “where are the women?” then Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner, 2003) is the perfect gift.  LeBlanc followed her subjects– two Latina women and their “random family” members– for ten years, and she charts their movements from the stoop to the street, through the criminal justice system and public housing and beyond in excruciating but always readable detail.  Drugs are a key part of this story; crime and addiction somewhat less so.  Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty of using and dealing, not to mention jail time.  But like the best ethnographers, LeBlanc reveals the degree to which those categories, with all their moral baggage, are constructed in and meaningful to specific communities.  In the world of Random Family, drug use and sales are part of getting along day-to-day.  Try just saying “no” to that.

May Your Days be Merry and Bright