The Points Interview: Alexandra Chasin

Editor’s note: Today’s interview comes courtesy of Dr. Alexandra Chasin, associate professor of literary studies at Eugene Lang College, the New School, and author of the new book, Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs.

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1. Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Assassin of Youth explores the origins of the war on drugs in the United States with a focus on Harry J. Anslinger. Anslinger was the first drug czar, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from 1930, when the bureau was set up, until his retirement in 1962. Anslinger believed in harsh penalties, compound penalties for repeat offenders, and mandatory minimum sentencing. And he didn’t rest until they were in place. More of a bureaucrat than an ideologue, Anslinger was nevertheless a propagandist with a knack for hanging particular drugs on particular social and immigrant groups. With these beliefs and powers, he helped create a criminal justice system that very disproportionally convicts young African American and Latino men on minor nonviolent drug offenses.
Assassin of Youth asks what was in Harry’s drinking water as a kid. What made him so sure that marijuana made people violently insane, that the specter of harsh penalties would ever deter drug-taking or inhibit drug trade, and that racial others and immigrants were the cause of the narcotic menace?
Going back to 1820, noting the rise and fall of alcohol prohibition, immigrant waves, the rise of government bureaucracy – but also relativity, Wallace Reid, gangster lore, and popular magazines – Assassin of Youth looks at the cultural origins of the Anslinger and his war on drugs. The book tracks Anslinger’s career, beginning with his first jobs at the Pennsylvania Railroad Company in Altoona where he grew up, and following through to his legacy.
Using pictures of all kinds of historical documents from deeds to charts to city maps to a photograph of the Coast Guard busting a rum running boat, the book ranges from more traditional historical methods to more playful ones, using screwy language to twist up the account of Harry J. Anslinger and his war on drugs. Assassin make the point that we don’t just need to retell history, we need new ways to tell it in order to gain fresh insight into the history of now.

2. What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?
Assassin of Youth places the emergence of drug law and policy against a backdrop of cultural history. In this way, new juxtapositions arise, for example, the slow and public death-by-addiction of movie star Wallace Reid unfolded in the early 1920s, just as the right of doctors to prescribe narcotics to addicts was being challenged in thousands of court cases.
The book is promiscuously interdisciplinary, complicating the history of drug policy by poking into the social sciences to look at the growth of statistics, the Sociology of the inner city, and resonances between the participant observer of twentieth-century Anthropology and the undercover agent.
Finally, it often interests people to know that the war on drugs started well before Nixon’s War on Drugs and the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the early 1970s. The Harrison Act of 1915, the stamp act that was used to criminalize all those doctors mentioned above, went on to serve as the cornerstone for a century of prohibitionist drug law. By 1937, Anslinger had installed federal anti-marijuana laws, and by the early 1950s, mandatory minimum sentencing was in place.
The racist effects of drug prohibition legislation – championed by Harry J. Anslinger at every turn – were already at work in the culture that allowed his legislation to take root in the first place. Neither did Anslinger invent equations between certain narcotics and certain social and immigrant books – though he cemented them and carried them forward, adapting them as new drugs came on line. These equations have a long history. It is the history of the present.

3. Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?
Assassin of Youth does not reveal a lot of new information beyond what is already known about Harry J. Anslinger. The book’s unique contribution is not on the level of information. Instead the book uses innovative form and language to craft a rhetorical rejection of the kind of thought – couched as information – that Anslinger mobilized to criminalize drugs.
The book makes unusual claims about what the trouble was with Harry: rectilinearity, fear of the tropics, and bureaucratic mind. And the book activates a set of characters rarely seen in books of history. There are Martha sprinkled throughout the text, and wherever they appear, they stand for alternatives views of, alternative ways of telling history. History is not a social science; telling it, reading it, understanding it, require imagination. And the book also takes up the Lotus Eaters, tropical characters – first seen in Western Literature in Book 9 of the Odyssey, when Odysseus almost loses three scouts to local Lotus Eaters, whose fruits are irresistible. Latter-day Lotus Eaters – like Leopold Bloom and William Burroughs – lead the text on lyrical side trips, keeping the book flakey and fun.
The Lotus Eaters and the Marthas hold and turn the kaleidoscope of the subtitle. They turn this text from a straight history into a genre-busting investigation into modes of knowledge.

4. Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?
Having traced the proto-origins of the War on Drugs through an investigation on the life and career of Harry J. Anslinger, the book leaves off in 1962, when he retires. Though there is a vertiginous tear through the last few decades in especially lyrical fashion, the present is largely untreated…. You could say the book leaves some turns unstoned.
BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

Martha. Only a Martha, or better, multiple Marthas, could narrate this book.

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