Monday, February 16, 2009

Legislative Scatology

Scatology is “interest in or treatment of obscene matters especially in literature.”

Even before George Carlin died last year, many writers noted the growing presence and acceptance of “dirty” words in American life and letters. The use of dirty words in broadcasts is an issue facing the Federal Communications Commission.

As Mel Watkins wrote in his obituary of Carlin in the International Herald Tribune, of Carlin's use and defense of the “controversial” language, “The material seems innocuous by today's standards.”

When Vice President Dick Cheney said to U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), “Fuck yourself,” in the Senate Chamber in June 2004, the infamous four letter word was printed in many newspapers, such as The Washington Post. (The use of language and how we talk about issues is one of the questions of that is addressed by essayist Stephen Miller in his book, Conversation: A history of a declining art (Yale, 2006).

But Carlin was most concerned about the essential cultural need for truth telling, as Carlin’s New York Times obituary pointed out. Some of his funniest bits illustrated how language is misused to prevent the truth from being expressed.

Are there words, not among the “Carlin Seven,” that remain unutterable? What words are so outrageous that even euphemisms for the words are used with peril? In January 2009, the El Paso City Council got hit with the intergovernmental equivalent of “I wanna cut your nuts out
when it called for “an honest, open national debate about ending the prohibition on narcotics.”

The unmentioned, unmentionable words? “Drug legalization.” On Jan. 6, the nine members of the El Paso, Texas City Council unanimously expressed solidarity with their sister city of Ciudad Juarez, where about 1600 persons were slaughtered by drug cartels last year. In most respects, it is a typically conventional resolution chock a block with “whereas, whereas, whereas” and “now therefore be it resolved.” It called “strongly” for more effective law enforcement efforts to stop the flow of weapons, chemicals used to make illegal drugs, and laundered money. It endorsed funding the major Federal, state and local law enforcement and anti-drug agencies. But, and this is the part where you need to cover your eyes, it urged the U.S. government to have “an honest, open national debate about ending the prohibition on narcotics.” (Council Minutes, p. 10-11).

The Mayor immediately vetoed the resolution, saying it called for a debate on the legalization of narcotics:

The action of Council in amending the resolution, which was drafted by the Border Relations Committee, undermines the hard work of the Committee by adding new language which may affect the credibility of the entire resolution. It is not realistic to believe that the United States Congress will seriously consider any broad based debate on the legalization of narcotics. That position is not consistent with community standards both locally and nationally. I urge Council to reconsider supporting the original wording as recommended by the Committee.

Five members of the Texas House of Representatives immediately wrote to the El Paso City Council that the resolution’s call for “an honest, open national debate “ was “support for discussions to legalize narcotics at the federal level.” They warned if the resolution were not vetoed, “Funding [by the State of Texas] for local law enforcement efforts and other important programs to our community are likely being put in jeopardy, especially during a time when state resources are scarce.” Translation: “We’re gonna cut your nuts out!”

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes of El Paso, powerful chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, also warned El Paso civic leaders that Congress would retaliate against El Paso in the “economic stimulus package in which El Paso stands to benefit” – unless the resolution were vetoed.

Is this comprehensible? A congressman tells his constituents, “If you ask for an open honest debate about the failed policy that has left 1600 bodies dumped on the other side of your metropolitan area, ‘Congress is gonna cut your nuts out!’”

Witnessing a murder epidemic by gangs who are financed by illegal drugs, the council not unreasonably suggested an “honest, open national debate” about the policy that created and empowers those gangs. Why does this sound like a string of obscenities to the ears of congressmen and Texas legislators? George Carlin would be having a field day with this story.

Notice that when serious people question the current ineffective strategy, the defenders of the status quo label this question as a call for "drug legalization." They prefer to use "drug legalization" as they would the term "Communist" or "fascist," trying to create the implication that no reasonable person would advocate such a preposterous position. This is the same tactic of the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils of a half century ago. When civil rights activists tried to register black citizens to vote, they were accused being Communists, and of taking orders from the Kremlin. That was a charge J. Edgar Hoover made against Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in warning John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy to keep their distance from him.

The El Paso resolution found on pp. 9-11 of the Council's minutes is more mild than the typical volume of the Congressional Record. But when the city council was threatened with economic retaliation from their congressman and their state legislature, four members of the council reversed their position and sustained the Mayor’s veto.

Twenty-one years ago, I was an eye witness to similar pressure to shut down debate on our drug policy. In the 1980s, I was counsel to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee responsible for drug law enforcement. In the 1980s, drug abuse was generally going down, but anti-drug rhetoric was going up. The illegal drug problem became the “war on drugs.” First Lady Nancy Reagan made drug abuse prevention her signature issue to deflect criticism of Marie Antoinette-like excesses in redecorating the White House during the 1981-82 recession.

Anti-drug politics spawned anti-drug legislation in 1982 and 1984 that I helped write. In June 1986, basketball star Len Bias died snorting cocaine the night he signed with the NBA champion Boston Celtics. In July, House Speaker Tip O’Neill from Boston saw the political advantage in this tragedy. Regular order policy-making was swept away in a flood of anti-drug hysteria. A few weeks later, I generated the infamous mandatory minimums for crack cocaine on my word processor without Subcommittee hearings or careful consideration. It was just one of hundreds of anti-drug provisions enacted on a careful political calculation that disregarded scientific research and the knowledge of the drug treatment and public health communities as part of the "Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986" (P.L. 99-570).

But early 1988, the “war on drugs” consensus began to crack. Kurt Schmoke, the new Mayor of Baltimore and a former prosecutor, and Princeton professor Ethan Nadelmann, questioned the effectiveness of the war on drugs approach. It looked like an “open, honest debate” on drug policy was in the wind.

With a presidential election on the line, the new House Speaker, Jim Wright of Texas, led Congress to invest enormous energy into another omnibus anti-drug bill. In September, the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control held two days of hearings on Schmoke and Nadelmann’s ideas simplistically relabeled “drug legalization.” This was the opportunity for Members of Congress to heap ridicule and invective on any critique of the status quo – “open, honest debate” indeed. Two weeks before the election, the “Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988" (P.L. 100-690) passed.

Congress made sure to bury “open, honest debate.” Among its 374 pages, three provisions of the 1988 law stand out:
First, Congress declared that it was the policy of the United States to “create a Drug-Free America by 1995.” (Sec. 5252(b)).
Second, “It is the sense of Congress that proposals to combat sale and use of illicit drugs by legalization should be rejected; and consideration should be given only to proposals to attack directly the supply of, and demand for illicit drugs...” (Sec. 6201).
Third, “The Congress finds that legalization of illegal drugs, on the Federal or State level, is an unconscionable surrender in a war in which, for the future of our country and the lives of our children, there can be no substitute for total victory.” (Sec. 5011).

Politically, the law was a wash. The Democrats lost the White House again, and retained control of the Congress. The law created the drug czar’s office and President George H.W. Bush appointed Dr. William Bennett to trumpet zero tolerance the drug epidemic. One result: the population of the Federal prisons exploded from 36,000 in 1986 to over 202,000 today.

Instead of a smart policy, we have had twenty years of mostly rhetoric. Not only are Congress and the White House “drug czar” more than fourteen years overdue on delivering on their ridiculous pledge of a “Drug Free America,” in many respects the problems are worse. Since the early 1990s, drug use by teenagers has increased. The death rate from the use of illegal drugs has grown. American cities remain plagued by drug related crime and disorder, even as crime rates have fallen. Now we have 30,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting a resurgent Taliban that taxes the opium farmers. In Mexico, 45,000 Mexican troops are fighting the hydra-headed drug cartels that kill generals, chief prosecutors, police chiefs, mayors, journalists and thousands of others with impunity.

Today, when people call for a debate on drug policy, they aren’t calling for better or cheaper dope for potheads and addicts, they are calling for an end to the terror in neighborhoods dominated by the violence of drug prohibition, and an end to the power of the criminal cartels. They want to save lives and end the thousands of deaths of drug users each year due to poisoned and uncontrolled drugs. They want to end market logic that targets kids, and makes it easy for teenagers to become rich drug dealers. All Americans want the same thing, a system of control that protects public safety and public health.

Economically, our commitment to criminal punishment has resulted in the conviction of one out of nine American men of a felony. That accumulation of felons means tens of millions of men can’t earn decent salaries, can’t buy cars, can’t buy homes, and can’t contribute to our economic recovery.

Three-quarters of the public know our policy is a failure. They hunger for an open honest debate to hear about potential solutions.

What is this controversy really about? Don’t all Americans want a drug control system that works, meaning one that reduces violence, crime, and disorder; better protects youth; improves public health by reducing death and disease; and that wisely uses scarce public resources?

An unreasonably cynical view is that cops and the prison industry simply want the jobs and paychecks that come from fighting such chaos; that the violence is good for their business.

But it is human nature that crusaders are invested in their cause. The anti-drug policy is a mission, not a program subject to cost-benefit analysis.

Another cynical view is that the drug cartels don’t want any changes – their profit could not be better – and their campaign contributions are oriented the same way.

To whom and why is this debate be so frightening? Not those who believe they have strong arguments. Who stands to lose the most? The drug cartels and traffickers stand to lose the most. An effective drug policy would end their profits, end their power, end their violence and end their impunity.

Through bribery and threats, the cartels own countless public officials in Mexico and Colombia. The cartels have branches operating in the United States. If the cartel leaders cannot be quoted condemning a drug policy debate, who would they put up to it?

The rationale for vetoing the City Council resolution of Rep. Reyes and the Texas legislators is that a city which questions national policy will be punished. Are there any instances in which that has happened? During the Bush presidency, city councils around the nation adopted resolutions condemning the USA PATRIOT Act ,White House policies on torture, the Iraq war, and the president himself. Almost one hundred cities and towns adopted resolutions calling for the impeachment of President Bush. None of them were retaliated against for their resolutions.

In 2003, the Minneapolis City Council condemned the USA PATRIOT Act, the Homeland Security Act, various Military Orders and Justice Department directives in the “war on terror,” yet the Republican Party held their convention there last summer!

The threatened retaliation against El Paso for saying the dirty words “have an ‘honest open debate’ about drug policy” was no doubt a bluff. In these hard times, it was a bluff that at least half the city council was not going to call, and the Mayor’s veto was sustained.

Who is safer as a result? The people of El Paso, the people of Ciudad Juarez, or the members of the cartels?

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