Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities
22Jan/131

The House We All Live in

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.

-Jeff Jurgens

14Sep/120

Casualties on “The War on Fat

Thinking through the Human Condition: Arendt and Anthropology

Common wisdom has it that the U.S. now faces an “obesity epidemic.” Ample statistical evidence would seem to support this claim. According to recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sixty-eight percent of adults, and thirty-two percent of children and adolescents, qualify as obese or overweight as determined by the Body Mass Index (BMI). The BMI is the biomedical measure of “healthy” and “unhealthy” weight currently employed by most doctors, researchers, educators, and policymakers in the U.S. (and a growing number of other countries).

The public health response to this state of affairs, initially launched by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop in 1997, has been promoted as a “war on obesity” or a “war on fat” that echoes the militaristic rhetoric of other governmental campaigns (against poverty, drugs, and terror[ism], for example). This war effort has consistently conceived of obesity as a medical abnormality or disease that can be remedied through concerted social and political intervention. Health professionals and policymakers have regularly enjoined Americans to diet and exercise so that they might achieve—and then maintain—a normative body weight and shape. In addition, political figures like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and First Lady Michelle Obama have publicly thrown their support behind measures that encourage healthy eating and regular physical activity.

Public reactions to the war on fat have varied a good deal. Most of its advocates argue that the campaign is a necessary response to a serious threat to the nation’s health and health care system, while some of its detractors contend that, at its extreme, it unduly interferes with individual Americans’ ability—or right—to eat, drink, and otherwise attend to their bodies as they find appropriate. Other critics focus on what I consider to be a more significant issue: the lived consequences of the war on fat, particularly for those young people who are its main targets.

To my knowledge, Hannah Arendt never directly engaged with the state’s role in the biomedical health of society and polity, but I suspect that she would have regarded the current campaign with skepticism. If her essay “Reflections on Little Rock” is any indication, she would be troubled by the ways that today’s children and adolescents are being asked to scrutinize their food choices and physical activity and thus bear the burden of a public health problem that ultimately derives from this country’s political economy of food production and consumption. In addition, she might well insist that children are “first of all part of family and home” and should therefore be shielded “against the demands of the social and the responsibilities of the political realm” (pp. 241-242 in The Portable Hannah Arendt). Indeed, she might even consider the war on fat to be a troubling infringement on parents’ private right to “bring up their children as they see fit” (p. 242), a right to which they are entitled even if they fail to conform to society’s prevailing conventions and customs.

This line of argument certainly possesses its own consistency and coherence. But I would suggest that it remains open to question on two (if not more) counts. First, it implies that young people’s diet and exercise are ultimately matters of private discretion in a fashion that is troublingly close to some industry objections to the war on fat. It thereby offers little basis to challenge the ways that corporate “big food” has invoked individual choice to defend dietary habits and tastes that it has not merely cultivated, but profited from handsomely. Second, and more broadly, this line of argument proposes a sharp distinction between public and private that prevents us from grasping the ways that young people—whether we like it or not—are implicated in larger political debates and struggles. Moreover, it does not really equip us to grasp how public discourse, including government-sponsored injunctions to diet and exercise, can mold individual sentiments, attitudes, and sensibilities.

This last issue is a central concern in anthropologist Susan Greenhalgh’s article “Weighty Subjects,” which appears in the most recent issue of American Ethnologist. Much of Greenhalgh’s argument turns on her analysis of student essays written for “The Woman and the Body,” a lecture course she taught at the University of California, Irvine from 1995 to 2011. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s work on governmentality and bio-power, Greenhalgh argues that the ultimate product of the war on fat is not a large number of thinner, fitter bodies, but rather a great deal of intimate and public “fat talk.” Such fat talk either instructs heavyset people about how they can attain a normative body or else derides their “excessive” weight as a mark of personal shame and failure.

In Greenhalgh’s analysis, this pervasive stream of fat talk induces all too many young women and men to adopt a “fat” subjectivity, even if they do not formally qualify as obese or overweight according to the BMI.

Building on a close reading of several students’ essays, she asserts that these “fat subjects” come to treat their weight as an essential component of their selfhood and social (un)acceptability. They engage in forms of exercise, dieting, and more extreme self-denial that may result in some temporary weight loss but which often pose major health risks in the long run. And they internalize the moralizing idioms of fat talk to the point where they ultimately hold themselves responsible for their weight and their frequent inability to achieve a normative body. Fat talk and the larger war on fat thereby resonate with the broader neoliberal turn in American public life, which holds individual self-governance, not industry regulation and other structural measures, as the preferred response to pressing social problems.

In sum, Greenhalgh’s objections to the war on fat ultimately rest not on the notion that local, state, and federal government is intervening (illegitimately) in a realm of private decision-making, but rather on the evidence that the preoccupation with obesity is creating significant emotional suffering for a considerable number of people. Like many other anthropologists, she thereby underscores how the political realm does not merely impinge on intimate senses of self and personhood, but actually works to produce them.

-Jeff Jurgens