REAGAN'S AMERICA:

SOCIETY, CULTURE AND POLITICS IN THE 1980s

Philip Jenkins

 

CLASS 9

CONFRONTING EVIL

 

I have argued that American social and cultural attitudes were reshaped in the post-1975 decade by a new focus on individual moral evil. In domestic affairs, this new attitude was most evident in matters of crime and deviance, and acutely, in the drug war.

 

In your reading, I want you to consider the following questions:

 

How do attitudes towards crime shift from the 1960s through the 1980s? How do ideas of the causation of crime change?

 

How do ideas of youth crime shift? Why are gangs seen as such a menace in the 1970s? What are some of the cultural manifestations of this fear?

 

How are social problems reconfigured to emphasize individual guilt and sin? What are the consequences for public policy?

 

The insanity defense is the subject of intense controversy in these years. Why? How does this legal issue become such a central focus for debates over morality and responsibility? What are the cultural and philosophical implications?

 

How does America reverse the seemingly limitless tolerance for drugs that prevailed in the mid-1970s?

 

What is the social impact of the drug war? This is a more complex question than it might appear. Think through the consequences in detail. What are the effects on politics, on morality, on attitudes to youth, on the economy, on urban planning, on the law, on concepts of property…. Put another way – what sections of the community are immune from the effects and collateral fire of the war on drugs? Think hard about this one.

 

What are the effects of the expansion of prisons from the mid-1970s on?

 

What effects do the new and more penal social attitudes have on notions of liberalism? What effect on party politics and allegiances?

 

An important question: how much of the “Reagan revolution” happens completely independent of what Reagan wants, or indeed of his administration?

 

How do attitudes towards crime and justice serve to focus populist hostility to elites and experts?

 

How do conservative criminal justice policies develop such a solid economic foundation?

 

Tell me about some of the symbolic figures in the war on crime in these years, who they were and why they matter: Willie Bosket, Bernhard Goetz and Jack Abbott?

 

What vested interests drive individuals or agencies to stress or overstress drug menaces?

 

How do children and threats to children provide a vehicle for stigmatizing drugs?

 

How does the rhetoric about drugs like PCP or crack invoke old racial fears about violence, primitivism and uncontrollable sexuality?

 

Are the drug wars a disguised form of urban/racial counter-insurgency?

 

How does the drug issue link to terrorism threats, for example through fears of the open border?

 

Assume that you are a bureaucrat or politician attempting to push a new drug menace. Tell me the rhetorical means by which you would do so? What themes would you present? How would you undermine opponents? What are the key words and themes of your argument?

 

What is a moral panic? By what criteria can we say that such a movement is occurring or has occurred?

 

In September 1989, President Bush (41) declared that "All of us agree that the gravest domestic threat facing our nation today is drugs . . . our most serious problem today is cocaine and in particular crack . . . it is turning our cities into battle zones, and it is murdering our children. Let there be no mistake, this stuff is poison". Sixty percent of Americans regarded drugs as the nation’s most pressing problem. Given that five years earlier, the world had been on the verge of nuclear annihilation, this seems an incredible statement. How had the anti-drug ideology won such amazing victories in such a short time?

 

If, as it seems, the drug war seems so absolutely critical to the 1980s (and earlier and later decades) why don’t most historians pay more attention to it? Or indeed to crime in general?

 

Some thoughts on reading CRACK IN AMERICA. This is obviously a social science book as opposed to a standard historical text, and yet if offers rich resources for historians. What are the various authors trying to claim or argue? Do they present a common front? Do they make their case convincingly? What are the lessons here for historians, whether social, cultural or political?

 

Based on the essays in CRACK IN AMERICA, how far were the anti-drug fears of the 1980s rationally grounded? Who were the main protagonists in stirring or mobilizing fears? What were their motives?

 

What does the evidence of crack allow us to say about the relationship between drugs and violence? Is there a relationship? How? If so, how could violence be reduced? Is it just a matter of “You take this drug and it makes you want to kill someone”, or is it more complex?

 

What role did gender fears and concerns play in the crack scare?

 

What were the lessons of the anti-drug movement for parenting? For parental responsibilities? For the limits of childhood?

 

Who benefited from the crack scare?

 

How did the news media respond to the crack scare? What does this response tell us about the dynamics of journalism and newsmaking in the 1980s?

 

What role did racial fears and concerns play in the crack scare? How far does the crack scare reverse black social gains of the 1960s?

 

How does the crack scare fit into the long-term history of drug prohibitions and anti-drug movements in US history?

 

What is meant by a harm-reduction strategy? What are trhe political objections to trying such an approach?

 

Crack as a problem subsided after the early 1990s. What have been the subsequent drug scares that replaced it? What have been the long term effects of the crack panic on subsequent perceptions of drug problems?