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 — Kathleen J. Frydl

Editor’s Note: Kathleen Frydl’s new book, The Drug Wars in America, 1940-1973, is just out from Cambridge University Press. Points welcomes her timely and enlightening interview.

Frydl-book-cover 1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

I tell the story of how and why the US government became “addicted” to the modern drug war, choosing prohibition and punishment over treatment and regulation. I argue that the logic behind the particular shape and targets of the drug war (including that which was not targeted) had less to do with crime or addiction, and more to do with the management of state power.

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

To be honest, probably not that much. At several points, I rely on that scholarship, but I can’t say that I actually contribute to it. For readers of this blog, it might be interesting — maybe even troubling, but hopefully stimulating — to hear the story of the drug war narrated through a different voice.  I hope it is viewed as a complement to the literature.

That said, there are some parts of the book that may be of interest. In chapter 5, I argue that methadone clinics lost support for a variety of reasons. Proponents of punishment, recovery movements, and various groups on the left imposed standard medical — as opposed to public health — criteria on maintenance: built around “a crisis followed by a cure” paradigm. This is somewhat different from the goals of harm reduction. Under this more demanding paradigm, the fact that every recovery victory could be celebrated  compensated believers for so much failure. In the public health lens, on the other hand, successful maintenance meant only less to be dismayed about. The outcomes were not so heroic and the narrative not so redemptive. Whether it was the Black Panthers or traditional recovery movements, certain advocates criticized maintenance precisely because it staved off the “crisis” which they felt was needed in order to proceed to the “cure,” whether that cure was sobriety or revolution in the inner city.

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The Points Interview — Edgar-André Montigny

Editor’s Note:  Edgar-André Montigny’s edited volume, The Real Dope: Social, Legal, and Historial Perspectives on the Regulation of Drugs in Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2011) takes the spotlight today.

The Real Dope1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender would understand.

The Real Dope is a collection of scholarly articles exploring how the government and society in general have dealt with various drugs, from alcohol and tobacco to ecstasy and LSD. The articles introduce us to 19th-century moral reformers, 1920s flappers, downtown Vancouver heroin addicts, psychology professors, hippies, glue-sniffing high school students, ravers, post-war government officials and senators, all interacting in some way with intoxicating substances through using, studying or regulating them.

2.  What do you think a bunch of alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about this book?

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Special report: Addiction treatment growing as a financial investment

Editor’s Note: Today, we’re pleased to welcome Alison Knopf, editor of the Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weeklyas a first-time Points guest blogger.   We’re republishing, with her kind permission, her article on addiction treatment as big business, which first appeared at A&DAW on November 5th, 2012.  Several interesting issues raised in this piece, we thought, will merit further discussion among our readership. 

In September, when Tennessee-based Acadia Healthcare Company paid $90 million for Timberline Knolls, a 122-bed inpatient treatment program in Chicago, treatment providers wondered if their programs were worth that kind of money, bed for bed. Other deals in recent months, including Foundations Recovery Network’s acquisition in early October by Nick Pritzker Capital Management for an undisclosed amount, point to the possibility that addiction treatment — at least in the commercial (non-Medicaid, nonpublic) sector — is a profitable enterprise. For this story, ADAW talked to some of the most influential leaders of the addiction treatment field in the private for-profit sector.

In early September, Michael Cartwright, founder and former CEO of Foundations, and Jerrod Menz of Forterus, which in 2008 began investing in addiction treatment programs (see ADAW, October 20, 2008), joined with Treatment Solutions to form American Addiction Centers, which announced that it would provide “a comprehensive and cutting-edge suite of treatment-related services to the masses.” Forterus’ main treatment program is A Better Tomorrow.

Cartwright, who started his career as an inner-city case worker making $16,000 a year and is now on his fourth addiction treatment company, said that the treatment business is not ready for the stock market. “Forterus went public, and that was a mistake,” he told ADAW. But it is ready for private equity, or for just personal investment, he said.

Cartwright thinks addiction treatment is a good investment — for commercially insured patients — because 3.5 million people a year go to treatment, there have been no rate decreases and the average length of stay is consistent.

Cartwright’s first company was a not-for-profit. His second was a managed care company that he sold to the employees. The third was a privately held company that he sold to private equity — Foundations. And his fourth — American Addiction Centers — now has operations in six states and a healthy revenue stream, he said. But it is not ready for an initial public offering, which he said requires $100 million, and which most addiction treatment providers — with the exception of CRC Health Group — don’t have.Read More »

The Wire at Ten: Carlo Rotella, “The Case Against ‘Kojak Liberalism'”

Editor’s Note: The first guest blogger in our series “The Wire at Ten” is Carlo Rotella, noted scholar, public intellectual, playground point guard, and, not incidentally, Director of American Studies at Boston College.  (Full disclosure: he was a couple years ahead of me in graduate school.) A regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine and an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe, his latest book, published this fall, is Playing in Time:  Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.  “The Case Against Kojak Liberalism” is excerpted from his piece of the same name in the University of Michigan Press collection The Wire:  Race, Class, and Genre, edited by Liam Kennedy and Stephen Shapiro (2012).  Unlike last week’s commentator Joe Spillane, Carlo has actually watched The Wire.

Carter: “Wars End”

In his commentary on the DVD version of episode one of the first season of The Wire, David Simon notes that it was Ed Burns who wrote Detective Carver’s line about why the war on drugs isn’t really a war:  “Wars end.”  Simon says that Burns is “entitled” to have written it after having fought in two losing wars, first as a soldier in Vietnam and then as a police officer in the war on drugs.  The collapsing New Deal order spent much of its remaining force in these pyrrhic struggles.  When I talked to some of the creators of the show in 2008, they were explicit about their interest in this historical and political big picture against which they set The Wire’s action.

When I asked Burns about the war on drugs he pointed out that Kurt Schmoke, the former mayor of Baltimore who turns up on The Wire in a minor role as a health commissioner, was “crucified for questioning the war on drugs.”  Burns told me, “People are fed up with it.  We wanted to make it permissible to talk about that.  The police have become an army of occupation.”  Simon added, “We wanted to highlight the fact that the drug war is actually destructive to law enforcement.”

For Dennis Lehane, the chance to address the big picture in politically “simpatico” company—which also included the novelists George Pelecanos and Richard Price—was part of the attraction of writing for The Wire.  “I felt that a lot of 80s crime fiction was shit and it wasn’t about anything,” he told me.  “It was, ‘Let’s have nine serial killers.’  I felt it has to be about something, some kind of social document.  If there was a place where we all agreed, it was that the war on drugs was a farce, a de facto war on the poor that drove our incarceration rate through the roof.”  In formulating their response to this disaster, the writers wished to steer clear of both the conventional anti-crime right and what they regarded as a weak, unappealing left.  “I’m not a kneejerk liberal,” Lehane said.  “I grew up in Boston under busing.  We’re not Kojak liberals, and we’re not kneejerk liberals.”

Whatever kind of liberals they were, they were also professional tellers of crime stories.  I want to outline how those two elements, an ideological disposition and a craft expertise in genre fiction, came together in The Wire.  In the last third of the twentieth century, the war on crime and its subsidiary war on drugs claimed so much ideological real estate that it pushed dissenters to a margin occupied by bleeding hearts, stoners, libertarian cranks, and hairsplitting lawyers for the defense like The Wire’s own Maurice Levy.  Urban liberals, especially, were squeezed into a tight corner by compulsory universal conscription in the war on crime.Read More »

Monetize the Blog!

Gentle readers, if  you felt a pang go through you when you read yesterday that co-founder and co-managing editor Joe Spillane was stepping down from his lofty perch at Points, you were not alone.  The blog has gained both maturity and momentum in the last eight months, and those have brought stability to our day-to-day operations. But steering Points remains a demanding job, and while Joe is kind to call me “indefatigable,” his departure does bring us to a kind of turning point. How fortunate for us that just this weekend I was contacted by a marketing firm whose client–a drug treatment facility– would like to place their “high quality content” dealing with addiction and recovery on Points!

And Your Content Too

This is not the first invitation we’ve had to commoditize.  More than one person (at least one of whom was somebody’s well-meaning family member) has suggested we sign up with Google’s “AdSense” and start generating revenue by selling space on the blog to advertisers.  Last winter, another marketing firm (actually, pretty clearly an independent contractor doing piece work from home in one of those jobs you see advertised on a telephone pole) approached us about embedding links to relevant products and services into our posts. The occasion was guest blogger Michelle Garcia’s post on “Border History as Drugs History”; the linked-to product in this instance was a guide to online degree programs in Homeland Security Studies. And the going rate? Fifty bucks per link.Read More »

Magic Trip’s Druggy Sixties Origin Story (or, Why Historians Should Think About Selling Out)

When people tell me the 1960s aren’t history, I try to convince them otherwise by describing the process of transcribing decades-old audio from a reel-to-reel tape player. Gingerly string the tape onto the player and try to avoid mangling a piece of history. Miss a word and a say a prayer that the tape doesn’t get gnarled when you rewind. The headphones are like a phone line to another time; if you accidentally splice the tape, you’ll need to ask the archivist to patch you through again.

The Bus
(Source: Magnolia Pictures)

Filmmakers Alex Gibney and Allison Ellwood had an infinitely more difficult job. Working with UCLA’s Film and Television archive and an illustrious group of funders, they had the opportunity to take day-glo canisters of footage from Ken Kesey and the Merry Band of Pranksters’ cross-country bus trip and craft a coherent chronicle out of them. What they made with the film—some of it shrunken, lost, or reassembled in a variety of alternative narratives—is Magic Trip, a historical argument riding on an origin story about where the “Sixties” began.

The movie’s press kit wants you to know that the film’s guiding metaphor is the collision between the Pranksters and the Happy Plastic Family, featured in Dupont’s musical The Wonderful World of Chemistry at the 1964 World’s Fair. This collision “gave us the sixties.” Read More »

“So Logical to Us”: Donna Krulitz Smith’s Account of the Complex and Compelling Story of the Prohibition Experience in Northern Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Mining District

A superb 2004 master’s thesis completed in the University of Idaho’s history department by Donna Krulitz Smith examines how prohibition – first at the statewide level, imposed on January 1, 1916, and later, nationwide prohibition, imposed on January 17, 1920 – played out in the rough-and-ready environs of the Coeur d’Alene Mining District of Idaho’s northern panhandle.(1) The core sections of Smith’s narrative tell the story of two important trials.  The first prosecuted town officials and other involved parties from Mullan, a village just six miles west of the Idaho-Montana border; the second prosecuted a like group of defendants from Wallace, Shoshone County’s county seat, six miles west of Mullan on U.S. Hwy 10 (now Interstate-90).  Both sets of city leaders were accused of condoning, protecting, and illegally benefiting from illicit liquor trade during prohibition.  An alleged conspiracy conducted by these defendants imposed illegal taxes, fines, or fees on bogus “soft drink” establishments and other alcohol-vending businesses, including the district’s ample supply of sporting houses.  But there was an important twist to the story:  The tribute system in Mullan and Wallace – unlike the sprawling graft and corruption schemes spawned by prohibition in the nation’s large urban centers – did not find municipal officials personally profiting from the arrangement.  Instead, all revenue thus derived went straight into the two cities’ respective treasuries.

Satirical cartoon published June 4, 1921 after discovery of still in local mine, from Smith (2004)
Town leadership saw the tribute system they erected as a workable device for resolving three key structural problems:  First, there was the problem of insufficient sources of municipal revenue.  Second, there was the problem of the inevitability of a brisk alcohol trade in town continuing during prohibition, driven by the district’s large corps of work-parched, hardrock silver and lead miners.  Third, there was the problem of the ongoing police-related, court-related, and other municipal costs associated with, and amplified by, the presence of so large a population of young, unattached, and high-spirited men within the city limits.  City leadership figured that so long as no one profited personally from their specially crafted tribute mechanism – which came to be termed the “license by fine” system – their approach represented a workable (albeit somewhat risky) exercise in administrative and fiscal realism.  The absence of personal profit made all the difference, as that factor allowed for the engagement of the tacit support of most townspeople — who by-and-large shared the view that the system made the best of an awkward and difficult situation.  Indeed, townsfolk rallied to the aid of their officials when those charged with federal liquor trafficking violations went to trial and, thereafter, helped support the families of convicted defendants when the latter were carted off to federal prison to serve their terms. Read More »

This is Your Brain on Art House

When I’ve asked my students over the last couple of years what drug films they’ve seen, I’ve been surprised to hear Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) cited far more than any other film. I already had a sense of Requiem’s expanding audience since its limited theatrical release in 2000. It quickly joined its source material, Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel of the same name, as a cult favorite. (Selby co-wrote the screenplay and appears briefly in the film.) Users at film websites rave about it. Youtubers play around with its visuals and its score. List makers call it an all-time great drug film. There’s even a puppet version which, forgive me, will serve here as a synopsis.

But what surprised me was its popularity among adolescents. Among my students, even those who had not seen it knew classmates in high school who had watched it together and who had urged them to check it out. It seems that Requiem’s burgeoning status as a cult favorite encompasses not only a reputation among adult film enthusiasts, but also word-of-mouth circulation among audiences who may or may not have permission to watch its “unrated” content.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh’s drug film Traffic came out in wide release the same year, to massive critical and commercial success, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of twenty-five today who has seen it outside of class. Not for nothing this similarity, though: in both Requiem for a Dream and Traffic, knockout punches on the perils of addiction come in graphic scenes of upper-middle-class white girls being held in sexual captivity by black beasts. The question that inevitably arises about drug films is their relationship to the historical exploitation genre, in which an ostensibly anti-drug message serves as cover for lurid entertainment. Many viewers describe it exactly in those two registers: as an intoxicating sensory experience and a powerful Just Say No polemic. I think it would be unfair, based on this reception dynamic, to reduce the intensely wrought Requiem to the status of, say, a Reefer Madness. But the film’s drug content does, in a perhaps more interesting way, come from that era. Read More »

Dry Pushback Against Mann’s Alcoholism Movement and Robert King Merton’s Manifest and Latent Functions: A Perplexing Combination

 
Cross’s church in Berkeley

My thinking on this post started off in one direction and then suddenly veered into another direction entirely.  As you’ll see.

My original plan was simply to recount a triangular correspondence involving Laurance L. Cross, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and Marty Mann that occurred in 1947. 

Their letters to one another captured a telling instance of pushback against Mann’s then-fledgling alcoholism-is-a-disease campaign from a disgruntled dry. 

Laurance L. Cross was pastor of the Northbrae Community Church in Berkeley, California and, from 1947 to 1955, that city’s mayor as well; he was also apparently a staunch and diehard dry sympathizer and as well (sans any hint of mutatis mutandis) chair of the local unit of Mann’s National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA).  

Harry Emerson Fosdick was a nationally prominent Protestant theologian.  His controversial advocacy of a modernist position on biblical interpretation landed him on the cover of Time magazine in 1930.  Fosdick was also a member of Mann’s organization’s advisory board and as well brother of Raymond Fosdick, chief of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s philanthropic establishment.   According to Wikipedia, H.E. Fosdick’s 1939 favorable review of  Alcoholics Anonymous (i.e., “The Big Book”) is still regarded in that fraternity as “significant in the development of the AA movement.” Read More »