Authority in Storytelling: Comedy Central’s “Drunk History,” Intoxication, and the Historian’s Craft

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. Today he examines Comedy Central’s popular program Drunk History, and explores the role non-authoritative, even inebriated, history can play in getting students to question accuracy, opinion, and historical perspective. 

The first episode of Drunk History aired on the web as a Funny or Die feature on August 6, 2007. The show’s narrator Mark Gagliardi, fresh off a bottle of scotch, told the story of the infamous duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton to friend and show creator Derek Waters. A good deal of the episode takes place in Gagliardi’s apartment as he weaves his tale, but the funny comes from an amateurish documentary acted out by a cast of the creators’ close friends. After some initial background told by a clearly inebriated Gagliardi establishing Burr’s reputation as a shrewd opportunist, he launches haphazardly into the “scene” where Burr confronts Hamilton, boiling down the complexity of a nineteenth century “Affair of Honor” into a matter-of-fact declaration from Burr, lip-synching Gagliardi’s drunken mumble, “Hey you’re giving me shit, we gotta duel.”

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First episode cast image Left to Right: Michael Cera, Jake Johnson, Derek Waters, and Ashley Johnson

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Teaching Points: Teaching Marijuana Legalization in One Credit? An Educator’s (Incomplete) Guide

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY, and adds to our “Teaching Points” series, which shows how scholars are bringing alcohol and drug history into the classroom. 

For the second time in as many semesters I accepted an offer to teach a course at Utica College this term. It is a five-week, one-credit course that is part of the college’s effort to round out students’ schedules, often for financial aid purposes. The course runs during the last five weeks of the 15-week semester.  When it was offered to me in the spring, I had never taught a one-credit course before, and hadn’t considered how I might approach it. My major challenge, as instructors of these kinds of courses can probably attest, is getting students invested in brand new material just as their “regular” semester is winding up for final exams. This requires walking a fine line between maintaining the appropriate academic vigor and being overburdensome.

Luckily I didn’t have to work from scratch. I’ve been fortunate have had the opportunity to create and teach three sections of a survey-level course on the history of drugs and alcohol in American history in my time at Utica, and as a TA at University at Albany, SUNY. I’ve also discussed the challenges of teaching that class on this forum.  As I saw it, the first major decision was generating interest (to get it filled in a week or so) and the second was whether to create a summarized version of the full course, or to offer a five-week snippet of the first course. I chose the approach and format hastily, but not without some longer-term considerations. I have always been keen to critically assess my course evaluations (weaknesses and problems with that approach notwithstanding) to find out what students want with their classes.

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Beyond Legalization: Making the Case for Centering Pot in the 2018 Midterms

Editor’s Note: Ready to vote in next week’s midterm elections? Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach, in which he explains the status of America’s shifting cannabis laws and shows what new state and federal initiatives might mean for 2018 and beyond.

In many ways 2018 was the Year of Pot. Sales of legal weed are booming in nine states and Washington, D.C. Pot sales are expected to flirt with $11 billion this year and could reach $25 billion annually by 2025, according to some estimates. Last month, on September 21, Governor Ralph Torres of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) signed the first legalization legislation in a US territory. Congressional reform proposals have become more frequent and publicized. Perhaps as many as 15 states were considering voter initiatives (the exclusive route to reform in the United State prior to the CNMI legislation) for 2018 to expand access to marijuana. Six states will vote on, or have voted on ballot measures in 2018, while the remainder failed to register the appropriate signatures. Five states will consider recreational legalization (Michigan; North Dakota) or medical legalization (Missouri and Utah; Oklahoma approved in June) while the sixth (Colorado) will consider redefinition of industrial hemp.

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Representatives from the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands after signing legalization legislation in September 2018

Public support for legalization continues to grow (to 62% according to a recent poll) and support for medical marijuana has become overwhelming. But support for increasing access to pot will likely remain a very low priority for voters on election day. Especially this year, when the midterm elections appear to be a referendum on the Trump Administration, it seems a little indulgent for folks to continue to push a legalization agenda in this election season. However, the party that controls legalization will be able to shape the contours of reform, and those contours comprise some of the most important issues surrounding legalization according to activists.

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Anti-Narcotics as Social Critique: Earle Albert Rowell’s Crusade

 

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Earle Albert Rowell

We are introduced to David Dare in Experiences of David Dare in Bible Research, a novel written by Earle Albert Rowell in 1933. Dare, presenting a series of lectures on biblical prophecy to a town of agnostics gradually wins over the Emersons, a local family who become convinced by Dare’s lectures and convert to Christianity. Four years later, Dare and the Emersons reappear as a team of anti-narcotics crusaders, saving a wealthy family, the Marvels, from the perils of addiction in Dope Adventures of David Dare.

Dare’s creator, Earle Albert Rowell had written several short books on religion and drugs through this period. One about the opium habit from 1929 Battling the Worlves of Socitey and another about the new scourge of marijuana in his 1939 book, On The Trail of Marihuana. Described by his publishers as a well traveled anti-narcotics crusader, a member of the White Cross International Anti-Narcotics Society. He and his son Robert, Earle’s opium pipe in hand, had criss-crossed the country educating the public about narcotics and writing about his work. Continue reading →

Rumor and Libel: Regulating Cannabis in the Panama Canal Zone, 1914-1935.

Nelson Rounsevell

Nelson Rounsevell

On October 2, 1935, in the midst of Reefer Madness, Nelson Rounsevell was convicted of a single libel charge in a Panama Canal Zone District Court. Rounsevell, editor of the bilingual Panama American had published a series of editorials in the summer of 1935 alleging that Colonel James V. Heidt and Major General Harold B. Fiske were running a “suicide post” at Ft. Clayton, after reports surfaced of four suicides in six weeks at the fort. In one editorial, Rounsevell referred to Heidt as, “the Simon Legree of the zone, [relentlessly] driving his men by day and [ignoring] marihuana smoking by night.”

While the story seems have all the trappings of reefer madness discourse, his conviction on libel charges might seem curious. Surely, if Harry Anslinger had been involved, he may have led the charge against Heidt and Fiske himself. In fact, Rounsevell was indicted on five separate charges of libel during this episode and was only convicted on a single charge. I suggest that understanding the Rounsevell libel case involves understanding the evolution of marjiuana regulations in the Canal Zone that predate the conflicts of reefer madness in the U.S. Soldiers overworked, bored, and isolated had been using marijuana as a solution-seeking activity to pass time and cope with the tremendous stress and isolation of military life in the Canal Zone. Rounsevell’s error was not reporting marijuana use, it was misunderstanding the motivations for use. Marijuana use did not cause the suicides, but the factors that did were factors that also influenced an individuals use of marijuana. Continue reading →

The Eyes of the City: Fiorello La Guardia’s Committee on the Marihuana Problem in New York

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Fiorello LaGuardia

I recently attended the Urban History Association conference in Chicago, October 13-16 along with Tina Peabody and Shannon Missick, two colleagues from the University at Albany, SUNY, presenting a panel about the shifting focus of municipal resources toward (and away from) issues of trash collection, food access, and marijuana use. I examined the La Guardia Committee Report on the Marihuana Problem in New York, published in 1944. The committee was tasked with investigating the validity of public hysteria surrounding marijuana use in New York City during the so-called Reefer Madness era, which galvanized political support for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937.

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Harry Anslinger

The committee report stands as a clear refutation of Anslinger’s version of the marijuana threat, and though largely ignored at the time, constitutes a rallying cry for advocates of legalization today who use the report to expose the flimsy bases for the drug’s initial prohibition. The report has thus become a hot new source for historians to re-examine. In a newly published article in the Journal of Policy History, Emily Brooks discusses the disconnect between federal marijuana policy approaches and local marijuana policy approaches, centering the La Guardia report within this policy conflict. Brooks argues that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics was able to exert its power to shape marijuana policy and along with an assist from the American Medical Association, to circumscribe medical and scientific inquiries into the plant despite the efforts of La Guardia and the New York Academy of Medicine to counter their power in the late 1930s.

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Holy Smoke: Religious Freedom and Medical Marijuana in the 1990s.

During my visit to the NORML archives, I found a few interesting items on religious uses of marijuana during the 1990s [1]. These were appealing because I remember coming of age during a time when you’d occasionally hear a story about people getting busted for drugs and “claiming religious freedom” to justify their dangerous criminal behavior. I decided to gather these sources expecting that I could work with them at some point.

Frequent readers, have read a few of my thoughts about historical perspectives on motivations for cannabis use and the following will speak to this research interest, but the real motivation for picking these sources back up is NFLer Colin Kaepernick’s recent pre-game protests against abuses of police power. In my own experience, the social media storm seems to boil down to a conflict over who can own the controversy. Meanwhile Kaepernick’s own words about his motivation fail to resonate. In a story twist familiar to drug historians, the failure to understand real motivation obscures and threatens to silence or erase a public act of defiance against social injustice. Continue reading →