In the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin argues that natural selection acts by “rejecting that which is bad, [while] preserving and adding up all that is good”(3). The modern conservative movement has manipulated this theory into a de facto form of Social Darwinism through the imprisonment of non-violent substance abusers. In Jarecki’s documentary “The House I Live In” this is described as “the holocaust in slow motion”.
The term substance abuse encapsulates those suffering from addictions to both alcohol and/or drugs. Specifically, alcoholism has been classified as the “fourth most serious health problem” in the United States (Lee 104). In fact, in 1967 the American Medical Association “would pass resolutions acknowledging the disease model of alcoholism” (Lee 101). The DSM-V, the American Psychiatric Association’s bible, classifies drug addiction as a primary disease. If we can then accept the linear logic that addiction and alcoholism are recognized as disease by the two most austere organizations responsible for public health policy in our country, to classify sufferers of these diseases as criminals is not only inherently wrong, but a form of Social Darwinism (Edwards 6).
Since the inception of the so-called War on Drugs, despite having “less than 5 percent of the world’s population [the U.S. has] nearly 25 percent of its incarcerated population [and] imprisons more people than any other nation in the world—largely due to the war on drugs” (Charlotte 1). Upwards of one quarter to one half of those behind bars are for arrests related to drug and alcohol abuse. If it has been empirically proven that alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases, why are we imprisoning these individuals? Is it not clear that society must demand a paradigm shift in the “focus from stopping someone from ‘doing drugs’ to helping someone ‘overcome’ drugs” (Mann 12)? This is not to argue that all alcoholics and drug addicts have not committed crimes or that their primary offense was non-drug related. However there is a large number of “offenders who are merely people who have an addiction to illegal drugs, but no other form of criminal behavior” (Mann 2).
The War on Drugs has resulted in a generation of incarceration and a proliferation of the Prison Industrial Complex. The statistics are quite stark: there “were more than 1.6 million drug arrests in the U.S. in 2010. The vast majority—more than 80 percent—were for possession only” (Charlotte 1). On any given night “More than 500,000 Americans are behind bars […] for a drug law violation” and in “the last three decades, the adult arrest rate for drug law violations increased by 138 percent” (Charlotte 1).
The disease model of alcoholism and addiction has fluctuated over the last two centuries and has profoundly affected our nation’s drug and alcohol policies. The primary policy solution however has been that “a prohibitive, punitive approach has been emphasized. Racial and socioeconomic disparities have been exacerbated by the inequities of drug laws” (Lee 99).
As Edwards argues in Behavioral Healthcare, “Our society does not like to deal with people who have tremendous needs. Instead of confronting the issues, our response has been to lock up people with chronic medical problems and keep them out of sight and out of mind” (6). From the outset of President Richard Nixon’s War on Drugs, this is exactly what has happened to millions of Americans suffering from a primary medical and mental illness. We have literally locked them up, and thanks to mandatory minimum sentencing laws, figuratively thrown away the keys.
President Nixon’s declaration of a War on Drugs compounded with the Reagan administration’s draconian budget cuts to social programs, effectively removed the safety net for millions of Americans and created a downward socioeconomic spiral for inner-city youth. The resultant proliferation of alcoholism and drug addiction kept an even pace with the Conservative party’s agenda to eliminate, through imprisonment, an entire “lower” class of our society.
In 1972, President Nixon issued an Executive Order that eventually led to the creation of the Drug Enforcement Agency as to tool in his stated War on Drugs. This “war” flew in the face of the political and medical evidence with regard to drugs at the time. One study “recommended decriminalization of marijuana use, stating: ‘The actual and potential harm of the use of the drug is not great enough to justify intrusion by the criminal law into private behavior, a step which our society takes with the greatest reluctance’ but Nixon was not deflected from the pursuit of his agenda” (Lee 105). According to Lee, the War on Drugs was a “thriving business” and in a 1973 speech to Congress, Nixon declared an “all-out global war on the drug menace” demanding the reinstatement of mandatory minimum sentence for drug offenders (105). It is not entirely outside the realm of possibility to imagine that there may still be prisoners serving time currently for marijuana possession charges brought on in this era.
Continuing the conservative agenda, President Ronald Reagan declared that “government is the problem” (Lee 106). He then promptly spent the balance of his administration enacting some of the most severe budget cuts to social services that our country had seen, while increasing funding for “law enforcement, the penal system, and further military involvement in the War on Drugs” (Lee 107).
To understand how the modern conservative movement has turned the Prison Industrial Complex into a de facto form of Social Darwinism, one only need look back less than 100 years to view the roots of this Eugenic movement. In 1927 the Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in Buck v. Bell said “[t]here generations of imbeciles are enough” and granted the authority for forced sterilization (Tan 65). An entire class of citizen was disenfranchised by this ruling and it set the stage for the conservative parties philosophy with regard to so-called “inferior” forms of humanity—drug addicts and alcoholics.
The term Social Darwinism was coined not by Darwin himself, but by sociologist and philosopher Herbert Spencer. He and his supporters “saw society as a competitive struggle where only those with the strongest moral character should survive” (Reich). In fact it was Spencer rather than Darwin who proffered the phrase “survival of the fittest”. This newly christened movement, Social Darwinism, “offered a perfect moral justification for America’s Gilded Age, where […] the gap between rich and poor turned into a chasm, urban slums festered, and politicians were bought off by the wealthy” (Reich). This describes social conditions that are mirrored today: a vast disparity between rich and poor…the “one-percenters” and the socially exclusive practice of imprisoning an entire segment of society for non-violent drug/alcohol offenses.
The practice of Eugenics, or the social manipulation of reproduction based on desirable and non-desirable traits, is the end result of Social Darwinism. The United States is not alone in this practice. Nazi Germany was the most extreme example of this medical and social manipulation, but the eugenicist Swiss psychiatrist, Eugen Bleuler who created the term schizophrenia, categorized alcoholics and drug addicts in the same class as “criminals, prostitutes […] ‘immoral’ people, the mentally ill […] ‘gypsies’, and vagrants” and they “were seen to constitute hereditary ‘threats’ to the Swiss nation” (Gerodetti 40).
As the Prison Industrial Complex has risen, so has the need to fill these prisons. Privatization of prisons has created a cottage industry for an entire segment of the population; from prison guards to the various ancillary services required to keep them running. These businesses operate like any other for-profit business model and must be kept at peak census if they are to turn a profit. The War on Drugs provided the ideal solution to this business model. The implementation of mandatory-minimum sentencing guaranteed a steady supply of bodies to fill the cells. The conservative party’s “tough on crime” mantra and institutional insistence on criminalization of what is factually a public health problem, has created a scenario where a disproportionate number of people with disabilities (addicts/alcoholics) are effective removed from society. Who are these people? The vast majority are low income and people of color. For example, African-Americans “compromise 13 percent of the U.S. population, and [use] drugs at similar rates to people of other races. But blacks comprise 31 percent” of those arrested for drugs and “more than 50 percent of those incarcerated in state prison for drug law violations” and of “those in federal prison for drug law violations in 2010, one-third were Latino/a and 44 percent were black” (Charlotte 2).
That “blacks have been arrested for drug violations nationwide at rates 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than white arrest rates” cannot be dismissed (Charlotte 2). This is a direct result of the conservative movements efforts, through the War on Drugs, mandatory-minimum sentencing, and criminalization of addiction, to disenfranchise an entire “undesirable” portion of the population—Eugenics and Social Darwinism by definition. The “lifelong penalties and exclusions that follow a drug conviction have created a permanent second-class status for millions of Americans” (Charlotte 3).
Social Darwinism is alive and well today. Eugenic ideologies have “persisted through the subtle influence of cultural beliefs concerning marginalized groups” and society is only seen as safe when “such people are locked behind the walls of an institution or when deceased” (Balcazar 35).
In addition to the morally bankrupt philosophy of criminalizing drug addicts and alcoholics, the financial burden placed upon the United States is immense. While the Prison Industrial Complex is thriving, the self-perpetuating cycle of addiction and imprisonment continues in the vacuum of effective treatment strategies. Even law enforcement is in general agreement that stopping the supply-side is grossly ineffective. Recognizing addiction and alcoholism as a disease and treating it as such is the consensus among professionals in the industry, yet our political framework, the conservative wing in particular, takes a short-sided view of this reality and continues to perpetuate a problem that actually has a solution. As Edwards so succinctly states, our “society can no longer afford to spend billions on warehousing people with substance abuse problems”.
Darwin could not have possibly anticipated the obscene political capital that would be expended in his name—namely the gross misrepresentation of his theory of natural selection into a public policy that disenfranchises millions of American’s each year through the Prison Industrial Complex and the conservatives War on Drugs. It is indeed, the “holocaust in slow motion”.
Balcazar, Fabricio E., Pamela Block, and Christopher B. Keys. “Race, Poverty and Disability: Three Strikes and You’re Out! Or Are You?” Social Policy 33.1 (2002): 34-38. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
Charlotte Street Films. The Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Race. 1-3. New York. 5 October 2012. Media Kit. 1-3. Retrieved from http://www.thehouseilivein.org/.
Darwin, Charles. (1859). The Origin of Species: Chapter 4—Natural Selection. Retrieved from http://profkev.com/texts/Darwin_origin_Chp_4.pdf.
Edwards, Douglas J. “A Tale of Two Crists.” Behavioral Healthcare 28.4 (2008): 6. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Gerodetti, Natalia, and Veronique Mottier. “Eugenics and Social Democracy: or, How the European Left Tried to Eliminate the ‘Weeds’ from its National Gardens.” New Formations 60 (2007): 35-49. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
The House I Live In. Dir. Eugene Jarecki. Charlotte Street Films. 2012. Film.
Lee, Dorothy R., Paul Lee, and Philip R. Lee. “2010: U.S. Drug and Alcohol Policy, Looking Back and Moving Forward.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 42.2 (2010): 99-114. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Mann, Jim. “Substance Abuse Control: How Do We Measure Success?” Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table (2010). 1-13. Academic OneFile. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Reich, Robert B. “The Two Darwinisms.” The American Prospect 16.12 (2005): 56. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.
Tan, Morse Hyun-Myung. “Advancing Civil Rights, the Next Generation: The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 and Beyond.” Health Matrix Winter 2009: 63-119. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Oct. 2013.