Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs

Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs

by Alexandra Chasin

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Overview


Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from its establishment in 1930 until his retirement in 1962, Harry J. Anslinger is the United States’ little known first drug czar. Anslinger was a profligate propagandist with a flair for demonizing racial and immigrant groups and perhaps best known for his zealous pursuit of harsh drug penalties and his particular animus for marijuana users. But what made Anslinger who he was, and what cultural trends did he amplify and institutionalize? Having just passed the hundredth anniversary of the Harrison Act—which consolidated prohibitionist drug policy and led to the carceral state we have today—and even as public doubts about the drug war continue to grow, now is the perfect time to evaluate Anslinger’s social, cultural, and political legacy.

In Assassin of Youth, Alexandra Chasin gives us a lyrical, digressive, funny, and ultimately riveting quasi-biography of Anslinger. Her treatment of the man, his times, and the world that arose around and through him is part cultural history, part kaleidoscopic meditation. Each of the short chapters is anchored in a historical document—the court decision in Webb v. US (1925), a 1935 map of East Harlem, FBN training materials from the 1950s, a personal letter from the Treasury Department in 1985—each of which opens onto Anslinger and his context. From the Pharmacopeia of 1820 to death of Sandra Bland in 2015, from the Pennsylvania Railroad to the last passenger pigeon, and with forays into gangster lives, CIA operatives, and popular detective stories, Chasin covers impressive ground. Assassin of Youth is as riotous and loose a history of drug laws as can be imagined—and yet it culminates in an arresting and precise revision of the emergence of drug prohibition.

Today, even as marijuana is slowly being legalized, we still have not fully reckoned with the racist and xenophobic foundations of our cultural appetite for the severe punishment of drug offenders. In Assassin of Youth, Chasin shows us the deep, twisted roots of both our love and our hatred for drug prohibition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226276977
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/30/2016
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author


Alexandra Chasin is associate professor of literary studies at Eugene Lang College, the New School. She is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction.

Read an Excerpt

Assassin of Youth

A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger's War on Drugs


By Alexandra Chasin

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Chasin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-27702-8



CHAPTER 1

The Trouble with Harry


Kaleidoscope. A kaleidoscope is a plaything, an optical device that continuously juxtaposes elements in a mirrored chamber, generating constantly changing patterns according to the twist of the viewer. What if a kaleidoscope could point out on the world and its past, rather than in on a handful of triangles, marbles, or other baubles? What if that kaleidoscope set its sights on a handful of historical elements, a set of values and laws, a number of related events, a personage? What if we accept that all vision is distorted one way or another, and insist not on plain correction but on rich distortions? What a twisted way to look at history.

Blind Spot. Whereas it is commonly understood that drugs distort perception, the sober and sobering official treatment of drugs in the United States has been particularly blind to the realities of traffic and use. Rather than solving social problems, drug policy and law have, in effect, constructed criminality along identity lines, turning a criminal justice system into an administrative mechanism for racist and classist social control.

War on Drugs. At base, there is a penal code in which the severity of punishment corresponds with the classification of the drug in question. But the war on drugs also works through the following disciplinary principles: harsh penalties, compounded penalties for repeat offenders, and mandatory minimum sentencing. Imagined as deterrents, these mechanisms have nothing to do with drugs per se, so their ideological attachment to drugs had to be forged, through and for a "war" — a metaphor with material consequences. This war is a complex cluster of changing cultural values rendered in law and enforced by the state over time affecting the lived experience of millions of people, causing suffering in as many unique minds and in too many imprisoned bodies and their extended networks, disabling economic options at every scale, coloring community life, further segregating the polity, and giving the lie to any national claim to justice. And at the nodal point in that cluster, a man named Harry J. Anslinger.

Anslinger's War on Drugs. Anslinger was the first drug czar. Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics from its establishment in 1930 until his retirement in 1962, Anslinger was the chief architect of drug prohibition in this country, an elaborately disastrous set of policies and laws. Anslinger's war on drugs predated and preconditioned Nixon's War on Drugs and the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1970s. Anslinger's war on drugs is the reason those dominoes could go down; it is fear and hysteria, trading in same, in the guise of hard-boiled and hyperrational traffic in truths and facts.

Here's to Your Knowledge. At this point, a great deal is known about the costs of a drug war: the thriving global black market, the personal and collective effects of drug use, the dynamics of enforcement, including its ineffectiveness. But the best knowledge of multiple disciplines, the wisdom of lawmakers and judges, reliable statistics, medical research, psychological insight, and great bodies of literature have produced compartmentalized conclusions and partial understandings of the disaster and therefore no real solutions. What is already known did not prevent Sandra Bland from getting killed.

Sandra Bland. In July 2015, having been pulled over for a failure to signal a lane change, Sandra Bland ended up dead after a three-day stint in jail in Waller County, Texas. Bland was an African American woman for whom public sympathies shifted after it was discovered that she had been high on pot when she was initially stopped and high again at the time of her death. Bland died — and was judged — in the nation Harry Anslinger wrought.

Mirror. A kaleidoscope works by way of a mirror. What else should we have in there?

Whiteness. White middle-class readers may be able to get drugs easily, and may not live in fear of the police, but that does not mean that we are no longer living in Anslinger Nation.

Anslinger Nation. No proof is needed that the United States is a carceral society; our incarceration rate is a global embarrassment. The bars of the jail cell — those literal straight lines that imprison people of color very disproportionally — are the perfect emblem of a system that tracks, administers, follows, stops, frisks, arrests, convicts, releases, and repeats with whole social groups. Rows and columns of attendant statistics, the rules of procedure, the panoptic organization of detainees and prisoners attest to organizational sophistication. If assembly-line automation seems bygone, consider the role of administration and management in a criminal justice system that processes so many human beings every year. Methods of social control have not declined in the last fifty or sixty years; by all measures, there is more policing activity than ever. Though it may look like the forces of sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll have prevailed, the squares are not vanquished. A spectacular blur of commodities dazzles the eye, drawing it away from police and prison — even as policing and prisons themselves are commodified both as private enterprise and as entertainment. In both fiction and nonfiction, policing has produced systematic brutality, systematic damage to individuals and communities. "5 times as many Whites are using drugs as African Americans, yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of Whites" in Anslinger Nation.

Anslinger. Harry J. Anslinger was born in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1892, a child of Swiss and German immigrants. He began his career with the Pennsylvania Railroad Company as a teenager, turning briefly to service in state government in Harrisburg before heading down to Washington, DC, and then rising through federal ranks, from attaché to commissioner.

Meanwhile. Meanwhile, during Anslinger's youth, cultural and legal tracks were laid for drug prohibition: time and space were subdividing; the Chinese method of consuming opium came under legal proscription; medical professions professionalized; immigrants immigrated; periodicals proliferated; the United States became an imperial character on the global stage, amassing military and financial superpower. Perhaps more than any other industry, railroads were central to legal capitalization in the nineteenth century. With its machine shops headquartered in Anslinger's Altoona, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company (PRR) employed over thirty thousand workers and controlled about $400 million in capital by 1880, at which point it loomed as the largest privately owned corporation in the nation if not the world. Next stop, drug prohibition.

Prohibition. Though the word is associated with the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s, prohibitionism refers to a strategy of total suppression — meaning that all production and trade in a given commodity is either specially licensed or illegal. This means, in turn, that anybody who produces or trades in that commodity without license to do so is subject to prosecution. The system of legal control of drug possession and trade known as drug prohibition has been the rule in the United States since the passage of the Harrison Act in 1915, and it has proved far more durable than the insanely expensive and counterproductive prohibition of alcohol while reproducing all of its worst tendencies: unregulated product, loss of revenue, heightened police corruption, and anemic public health frameworks. What can account for the continuity and popularity of a program that has constantly failed to achieve its own stated goals for over seventy years? Drug prohibition has been extremely effective at disempowering and disenfranchising young Black and Latino men, even if domestic policy was never an explicit conspiracy by a small powerful elite to do so. So prohibition must deliver and maintain some desired effect, some perceived social good, the fulfillment of some agenda for economic, social, and political power. Perhaps disempowerment and disenfranchisement are that good. And the isms do die hard.

Isms. On the one hand, this is a history of the emergence of drug prohibition: a national fantasy that derives from Puritanism, Federalism, Capitalism, Liberalism, Victorianism, Fundamentalism, Progressivism, Revivalism, Temperance, and Prohibition (of alcohol), among other things. Prohibition manifests in values like abstinence and policies like suppression, travels the circuit from high religion to biochemistry and back at the speed of culture, materializes in commodities and market practices, drives incarceration and corruption, often ignores or manipulates medical sciences, and stands in logical, social, economic, and political opposition to everything empirically true and commonsensical, from gravity to relativity. Prohibition denies social facts, ignoring, in particular, the will of capital — and its manifestations in narcotics and alcohol — to sneak around, to creep and seep into, and otherwise to exceed jurisdictional lines.

Tracking the Origins of Drug Prohibition. So how did the United States get hooked on drug prohibition in the first place? All possible answers, all approaches, all angles, all roads and rivulets through the history of drug prohibition in the United States lead to the overwhelming presence of Harry J. Anslinger, and back through him to the beliefs, like those above, that he ingested as a child, and others in which he trained in his first jobs at the PRR.

Biography. So is this a biography of Harry J. Anslinger? No, its subject is not a person. On the one hand, the subject of this book is the origins of drug prohibition. Yes, Anslinger is a significant part of the story, but this book seeks to entertain the broader cultural and historical context of Harry's war on drugs, concerning itself with everything from dominant belief systems to magazines and camels. In this light, Harry figures less as an extraordinary individual — the subject of a normal biography — and more as the sum of his functions, which naturally diminishes his humanity in favor of his utility as a carrier of cultural values. Such idiosyncrasies of his as can be found in the archive are used to make points rather than to inflate him as a quirky individual. Although I tend to see ordinary people as agents of historical change, I don't doubt that there are individuals whose qualities and impact exceed their time and place. I don't see Harry as one of those. He certainly had personal qualities, like cleverness and tenacity, that enabled a young man with his ambition to take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves, but I value him primarily as a vehicle for ideas — those in which he trafficked, and those in this book. The rest is contingency. And the question of what made Harry Harry.

On the Other Hand. This is a story of the ingestion and transmission of values, the formation of mental habits, the skill set and circumstances that made Harry Anslinger a particular vehicle for drug prohibition. This is not a story about Harry's experience, much less his subjectivity — the closest it comes is his persona. But Harry's life and career are so integrally related to the development of drug policy in the United States that he is irresistibly the lead figure in that development, and the archive does indeed point to a figure with a coherent set of beliefs, a well-documented office, and a long and stable period of influence. As a character in this book, which will inevitably seem to be a narrative, Harry will inevitably seem to have a self.

Reproducing Harry. But it is too late in history to treat Anslinger as a unified character walking through a plotted narrative — even in his own story. Furthermore, the self in question here — at least as preserved in the archive — is not that of a credible feeling person. Rather it is the carefully crafted persona of a public political figure who understood the power of rhetoric and narrative, definition and diagnosis.

Anslinger is perhaps most famous for his prowess as a propagandist, which he demonstrated in his first media campaign, against marijuana, in the 1930s. Anslinger was a spin doctor. He knew that control of narrative engendered other forms of social control. Harry understood that rhetoric was key to his work whether drafting law, crafting order forms, or writing instructions for how to fill them out. From his personal diary to a certain diplomatic achievement in the Caribbean to a curriculum for training agents, Harry J. Anslinger wrote his way to and through the position of commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The stories he told, which were both inherited and invented, the processes of inheritance and invention, and the causes and effects of the telling, are prime objects of this study.

Cause and Effect. Exactly.

Toward a Poetics of Drug Policy: Review of the Literature. Anslinger's record creates a powerful narrative that begs for investigation. Analyzing Harry's rhetoric (along with that of the Supreme Court, newspapers, and social scientists) requires attention to language. Of course, neither his language nor mine transparently purveys true knowledge: language is itself the problem. Thus, this book proposes poetic representations of an analysis of Anslinger's poetics, collapsing the distinction between poetic and analytical modes — as propaganda itself can do. Anslinger's rhetoric inflates a persona that goes hand in hand with principles of prohibition; in order to interrupt the lines of thought that produce prohibition, it is necessary to disrupt representations of Harry J. Anslinger's disciplinarian persona. This kind of life writing disrupts the semblance of narrative from between the lines.

This disruption takes many forms. For example, though it is chronologically ordered, this chronicle is complicated by synchrony and/or achronologic techniques, also by argument, meditation, imagery, and even extranarrative features. The prose style takes its time, juxtaposing as it goes. It meanders and doubles back. The language waxes lyrical. Lyricism for its own sake, I confess, pleasure as a reason for being — also, not incidentally, a motivating force for Lotus Eaters. Collecting the roots of three ancient Greek words in one, a kaleidoscope offers a vision of beautiful forms.

Apparently beginning as an origin story, this book attends to the tale of Harry's becoming, but it bogs down in the mid-1930s and again in the early 1950s, digresses wildly, savors the sonic properties of language, and periodically hands the narrative over to Lotus Eaters, who drink, shoot, snort, and smoke it to smithereens. The original Lotus Eaters are in Homer's Odyssey, the drugging natives who almost derail Odysseus's good men. But wherever they lurk, the Lotus Eaters — those literary figures and tropical bogeymen, those equatorial loiterers and dark idlers — are the antiheroes who throw the narrative train off the track, a critical maneuver in a war waged on aesthetic fronts no less than geopolitical ones. Their hyperlyrical tendencies challenge the very idea of progress. No page-turners, they. No, this book animates a set of characters whose mission is to interrupt the flow of narrative.

Martha and the Lotus Eaters. Throwing another wrench in the works of conventional history, this book experiments with speculation as an affirmative value, as a legitimate mode of knowing. In this text, imaginative techniques allowing for unreal characters like Martha, who stands for a speculative and alternative view of history, and Lotus Eaters, who stand for everything from id to inmate, are critical to surfacing repressed points of view. But who's Martha?

Marthas. Actually, there are multiple Marthas. You can spot them. Marthas know more than statistics, other than facts. They are many, historical personages and fictional characters, legends and keys, hiding in plain sight throughout. One of them is married to Harry. There's even a Martha named Ida.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Assassin of Youth by Alexandra Chasin. Copyright © 2016 Alexandra Chasin. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents


From the Prologue

Kaleidoscope. A kaleidoscope is a plaything, an optical device that continuously juxtaposes elements in a mirrored chamber, generating constantly changing patterns according to the twist of the viewer. What if a kaleidoscope could point out on the world and its past, rather than in on a handful of triangles, marbles, or other baubles? What if that kaleidoscope set its sights on a handful of historical elements, a set of values and laws, a number of related events, a personage? What if we accept that all vision is distorted one way or another, and insist not on plain correction but on rich distortions? What a twisted way to look at history.
 
Blind Spot. Rather than solving social problems, drug policy and law have, in effect, constructed criminality along identity lines, turning a criminal justice system into an administrative mechanism for racist and classist social control.
 
Tracking the Origins of Drug Prohibition. So how did the United States get hooked on drug prohibition in the first place? All possible answers, all approaches, all angles, all roads and rivulets through the history of drug prohibition in the United States lead to the overwhelming presence of Harry J. Anslinger.

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