This past weekend I took the time to watch Eugene Jarecki’s new documentary film The House I Live In, which calls passionately and insistently for the U.S. to end its decades-long War on Drugs. Jarecki’s previous documentary work includes The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002) and Why We Fight (2006), and he is known for activist filmmaking that combines sharp social commentary with fluid storytelling. There is much to admire in Jarecki’s take on the effort to stamp out illicit drugs, and given the massive racial and class disparities that have emerged in prosecution and sentencing, he is right to cast the War as a litmus test of our national commitment to equitable democratic citizenship. But there is also something about the manner in which he makes his case, and the very sweep of his vision, that gives me momentary pause.
Let me touch on the film’s strong suits first. Above all else, Jarecki sheds powerful light on the intimate impacts of the drug trade and the law enforcement crackdown against it. He does so in no small part by giving a prominent role to Nannie Jeter, the African-American woman that Jarecki’s family employed as a housekeeper in his youth. (Nannie is Jeter’s given name, not a reference to her role in the family’s life.) Jarecki regards Jeter as a second mother, and he often played with her children as a boy. We learn, however, that their paths in the world diverged sharply from his own, and several of them eventually became entangled in drug use, drug-related HIV/AIDS, and incarceration. Jarecki unflinchingly relates how his family’s privilege had adverse if unintended consequences for Jeter’s, and while some viewers might fault him for inserting himself into the film, his approach ultimately lends moral heft to his pointed political argument. Jarecki maintains that we are all implicated in the circumstances that led to the War on Drugs, and he refuses to remove himself from the film’s critical scrutiny.
In addition, The House I Live In includes revealing commentary from the many varied participants in the American drug crackdown: dealers and cops, defendants and judges, prisoners and wardens, activists and lawmakers, parents and children. The film features articulate reflections from people who have dealt drugs in the past and are now in correctional custody. Significantly, not one of these individuals denies responsibility for their actions—“I messed up” is a common refrain—but all seek to situate their decisions and actions within larger structures of constraint and disadvantage. At the same time, Jarecki includes remarkably candid insights from law enforcement personnel. Although a few of them make disturbing admissions about the perverse incentives that encourage profiling and drug-bust profiteering, the film does not demonize police officers and corrections officials. It instead allows them to express both the pride and the ambivalence they feel toward their work.
Lastly, Jarecki musters a wide array of legal and other experts, including prominent academics like Michelle Alexander and Charles Ogletree, to lend his film critical perspective and authority. To be sure, almost all of these commentators are sympathetic to Jarecki’s viewpoint, but it is nevertheless refreshing to hear intellectuals speak as intellectuals in any kind of feature-length American film. What is more, these figures do not merely touch on what are, at least for me, the most familiar and even well-worn points about recent drug-related criminal justice: the introduction of mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, the precipitous increase in rates of incarceration, and the dramatic expansion that ensued in both the state-run and private prison industries. For these commentators also relate the War on Drugs to the years of Jim Crow in the South; the Great Migration of African Americans to the Northeast and Midwest; the redlining and other practices that contributed to the formation of racially segregated ghettos; and the far-reaching impacts of deindustrialization. This attention to the longue durée of U.S. history is one of the film’s strongest attributes.
At the same time, Jarecki’s commitment to accessible and engaging narrative sometimes gets him into trouble. Although he and his collaborators are quick to criticize the reductive sound-bites that have defined mainstream public discourse from Nixon to George W. Bush, the film is occasionally too content to rely on its own slick editing and glib turns of phrase. There are also moments when sobriety yields too much ground to showmanship. Of all his interlocutors, Jarecki grants the most prominent role not to any person directly impacted by the War on Drugs, but to David Simon, the former journalist who went on to create the HBO hit “The Wire.” To his credit, Simon is a generally subdued and thoughtful commentator, but should the maker of a television series, however relevant and critically acclaimed, really receive this kind of precedence?
Jarecki’s priorities as a filmmaker also entail some unfortunate substantive trade-offs. At one key point in the film, he relies on interview footage with several experts to contend that the criminalization of opium, cocaine, and marijuana in the early twentieth century was not ultimately driven by benign public health and safety concerns; it was rather motivated by racially charged anxieties over the arrival of immigrant groups and the challenges they posed to white workers on local and regional labor markets. I am willing to grant that racist and nativist resentments may have played some role in the crackdowns against the users and distributors of these substances.
I can only imagine, however, that this claim—at least in its bald formulation in the film—is much more contentious in scholarly and other circles than Jarecki is prepared to admit here.In any case, such a line of argument cannot explain the more recent public response to methamphetamine, a drug that is more closely associated with (poor) whites than any minority or immigrant group.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the film, however, concerns the dubious parallels that Jarecki proposes between the War on Drugs and other cases of group exclusion and violence. Drawing once more on footage from multiple interviewees, he suggests that American law enforcement since the late 1960s has followed a sequence of collective identification, ostracism, confiscation, concentration, and annihilation that can also be observed (most notably) in the Nazi genocide of European Jewry. The film is quick to add that the “chain of destruction” evident in the contemporary U.S. is not equivalent to the one that unfolded in Central and Eastern Europe during World War II. But that does not prevent David Simon from casting the War on Drugs as “a Holocaust in slow motion” against America’s poor and minority populations. Such hyperbolic language strikes me not just as deeply misguided, but entirely unnecessary. Viewers do not need such problematic analogies in order to grasp the film’s claims and stakes.
Despite these warts and missteps, The House I Live In is well worth watching. The film makes a daring claim on viewers’ conscience, and it calls on all of us to undertake the challenging work of thinking through our convictions as citizens in fundamental ways. We need more, not less, of this kind of provocation.
As a regular faculty member for the Bard Prison Initiative, I can attest that one of the most appealing aspects of working with incarcerated students is their wide-ranging curiosity and perceptiveness. The men I know are eager to discuss topics that both deepen and expand the content of their classes, and they are quick to draw connections between their classes and current events. Their ability to make these links has a lot to do with the avid, even voracious attention many of them pay to the news on N.P.R., the major television networks, and almost any publication they can get their hands on. Such interest is a matter of both intellectual and existential significance: as a few of my students have related to me, the news offers one way to relieve their sense of isolation and to maintain a modicum of contact with “life in the street.” But their ability to draw connections also depends on an expansive moral and political imagination, one that consistently relates distant happenings to the details of their own lives.
A few weeks ago the students in “Migration and Diaspora in Global Perspective,” the class I am now teaching at Eastern New York Correctional Facility, wanted to know my thoughts on Palestine’s recent elevation to nonmember observer status at the U.N. The onslaught of questions began almost from the moment I entered the classroom. How would the vote change relations between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority? Would the Palestinians be able to challenge Israel’s military incursions and settlement policies in ways that were not available to them before? Why did the U.S. oppose Palestine’s observer status when so many other states in the General Assembly favored it? How should we interpret Germany’s decision to abstain? And just how significant was this vote anyway? Was it a merely symbolic gesture, or would it have a real and decisive impact on the future?
I was not entirely surprised by the students’ interest, and I suspect that our class was responsible for at least a bit of it. Not long before, we had spent the day watching and discussing Cherien Dabis’s debut feature film Amreeka (2009), which traces the journey of a Palestinian mother and son from their home in Bethlehem to an Illinois suburb. The film’s U.S. distributor, National Geographic Entertainment, has marketed it as a classic immigration story, and the packaging for the DVD plays on well-worn themes of new arrivals’ disorientation, homesickness, and gradual adjustment. But the film also draws on Dabis’s own childhood memories in Omaha, Nebraska to cast an all-too-knowing eye on American life during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and two key scenes deftly portray the power dynamics that unfold daily at Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza. Beneath the anodyne surface, then, Amreeka packs a subversive punch, and my students appreciated its shrewd take on both the Israeli occupation and the U.S. War on Terror.
But my class is hardly the only reason why they are concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A few of the students feel a degree of personal connection to ongoing events in the region because they were born and raised as Jews or because they converted later in life to Judaism or Islam. Others adopt a more distanced perspective but nevertheless regard the conflict as a pivotal geopolitical impasse about which they should, as informed students and citizens, have some knowledge.
And still others interpret the conflict as an almost paradigmatic instance of injustice, one that crystallizes the colonial legacies, entrenched political interests, and enduring economic disparities that define our contemporary world.
Moreover, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resonates strongly with many of the students’ own experiences of stigmatization and hyper-visibility on ethnic and racial grounds. In one way or another, virtually all of the African American and Latino students in my class—and they represent the overwhelming majority—can relate to the profiling, ID checks, body and vehicle searches, and policing of space that are an integral part of the Israeli occupation. Many of them can also sympathize with Palestinians’ more general condition of disenfranchisement, their desire for “a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective” (to invoke an evocative phrase from Hannah Arendt). In many instances, they cultivate such sympathy by drawing metaphorical links with their own histories and memories of exclusion.
On the basis of such connections, many of the students in my classes (and the Bard Prison Initiative more broadly) take a keen interest in struggles for cultural and political change in other parts of the world. They respond strongly to readings and films that deal not simply with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also with apartheid in South Africa and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the same time, they display considerable curiosity—and not a little generosity—toward other groups that adopt and re-work political traditions and cultural practices they typically claim as “their own.” For example, African American students are often struck by the ways that Northern Irish Catholics adopted elements of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they display a good deal of appreciation for the manner that Palestinian youth take up the aesthetics of hip-hop for their own purposes today. They do not typically claim exclusive ownership over these cultural and political formations, and they do not condemn moments of cross-cultural appropriation as illegitimate poaching or theft (although, I must admit, it can take a moment to digest white Irish Catholics singing “We Shall Overcome”).
I welcomed the questions the students posed that day, and I worked hard to answer them as best I could. But I was also aware of the distinct challenge they posed to me as a teacher and fellow observer of the world. How could I convey my own understanding of the recent U.N. vote while also acknowledging the lingering uncertainties and disagreements that it inevitably reflected? How could I draw attention to the complexities of the current conflict and not merely confirm, in an uncritical way, the sympathy that most of the students already felt for the Palestinian cause? And how could I suggest that we should be thoughtful about the connections we draw between other people’s experiences and our own?
I, for one, am acutely aware that I cannot facilely equate my own societal positioning and life history with those of my students. Are there limits on the imaginative links we might forge with people in other times and places?
Our discussion that day barely scratched the surface of these larger issues. But I left it with a new appreciation for both the difficulty and the importance of this kind of candid conversation. As challenging as it might be, such exchange is significant precisely because it bridges the political and the personal, the distant and the close-at-hand.