An Inauspicious Anniversary

Nixon and Ehrlichman, from Wikimedia Commons

49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).

This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:

“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (citation).

This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.

Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.

Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.

We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.

Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.

Some Learnings on Sadness and Worry

This is my own learning, and it may be helpful to you, or not:

As much as I believe that we can feel better if we reframe and adjust our thinking, there is healing that comes from acknowledging pain and honestly naming our hurt.

I am incredibly sad. I was looking forward to things that now are not going to happen, at least this year. Sometimes I am tempted to minimize my sadness: after all, other people have it worse. But that is not actually helpful thinking.

I am also worried—about individuals, about the church, about the economy, about our failing government, about what the world will look like on the other side of this unmitigated clustertruck. Sometimes I am tempted to just put a good face on it, to mimic non-attachment and parrot the words of Jesus, to say, “Well, tomorrow will take care of tomorrow.”

It is not weakness to name sadness and worry, and it is not strength to avoid them.

Here are my learnings:
1) If I name my negative emotions instead of avoiding them, if I look at them squarely, allow myself to feel and cry, I am able to feel my gratitude and my hope more deeply on the other side of it. I cannot be truly grateful unless I also acknowledge my disappointment. In Buddhist terms, I cannot experience “non-attachment” by being dishonest about what I’m attached to. In Christian terms, God embraces my suffering. I have to name my worry—that my brain is trying to solve an unsolvable problem—in order to move toward solving the problems I *can* solve.

2) When we name our negative emotions in public in a supportive community, we find that others feel the same way. The Powers that Be want us to be silent about our pain, to put a good face on it, so they can pretend that their policies are effective and the status quo is fine.

Naming our pain is the first step to community organizing. The Powers that Be do not want us to do that. They describe our exhaustion as laziness, our anger as “divisiveness,” our worry and fear as cowardice. It is in their interest to gaslight and minimize our cries. We have this critical voice in our heads and in the world, always policing our pain. It is not the voice of God. The last thing they want us to do is say to each other, “Oh, you are afraid of losing your for-profit healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, too?”

3) Any version of Christianity that tells you that negative emotions belie a “lack of faith,” or that your pain and fear is unacceptable to God is garbage. Exodus 2:24-25 describes God’s activity when the Israelites “cry out” — God hears. God remembers. God sees. God understands. Hagar names God “God who sees me.”

Many would-be spiritual gurus think policing negative emotions is a sign of sanctification or enlightenment. They think their job is to help other people feel better. It is not. Holy Week is, in part, about God embracing the whole reality of human suffering and loving it to death. This kind of divine incarnation is “beyond good and evil” the way we normally think of it.

It’s okay to feel whatever you feel. Preachers and pundits will gaslight you in the name of Jesus, Buddha, the Market, the Party, or whoever. But acknowledging our suffering will allow us to distinguish between the suffering that is manufactured—by our individual selves and by society—and the suffering that is simply part of being human.