I attended the Chicago Theology and Peace Conference prepared to videotape people of faith on criminal justice and drug policy. Having never even heard of René Girard, I was not prepared for the remarkable extent to which his mimetic theory illuminates—virtually prophesizes—current drug policy.
Though James Warren’s remarkable book, Compassion or Apocalypse, never mentions the War on Drugs, I’ll use—and stretch—a sampling of text (in italics) that highlights the mimetic foundations of drug prohibition, itself the single most powerful obstacle to self realization in minority communities.
The romantic lie
What we commonly refer to as “identification” is really a form of mimesis. What I call my “self” is anything but self-contained. It is not that I have no self, but I am not self-possessed. I am permeable.
This claim is a forceful rebuke to our overemphasis on the myth of the rugged (or deeply flawed) individual or group. It reminds us not to focus overmuch, for example, on the “culture of poverty” when analyzing rates of incarceration among certain populations. There is nothing inherent in Italian, African, or Latin cultures that predicts the rise of their street gangs over the years. It is the prohibitionist script—the motivations and opportunities created by the policy of prohibition—that sets the stage upon which they act.
Change the script and watch the behavior change, but I get ahead of myself…
The scapegoat mechanism
Through the scapegoat mechanism people transfer blame onto the victim who became the monstrous embodiment of the chaos of a non-differentiated world.
The scapegoat mechanism begins with the illusion of the need to kill the monster, and ends with the propagation of myths…the whole thing is a shared, group delusion.
A central Girardian claim is that culture and social peace were initially created by acts of very human violence, a lynch mob targeting individuals or groups, creating an us/them division. The targets were essentially arbitrary, though it is historically predictable that they be identifiable, different, vulnerable. James’s book underscores the unthinking, escalating, herd mentality of this process and the larger than life qualities attributed to the scapegoat who must be seen as a threat to the established order in order to justify mob violence.
This cynical, almost one-dimensional view needn’t carry the weight of explaining all things human to be strikingly relevant to the War on Drugs. Indeed the history of all hitherto existing drug prohibitions fits with hardly a murmur of protest into this frame.
Threat to the established order? Think of recent revelations about the anti-black, anti-protestor motivation for Nixon’s drug policy, which compliments our historic turns against Mexican and Chinese citizens by criminalizing the drugs they were associated with. Who they were and what drug they were said to be using was inherently unimportant. What was not critical was that they were identifiable, isolatable, vulnerable. They were them, not us. They served a purpose when their labor was needed. They served a purpose after it was needed.
Larger than life? Think of the stunning things said about people under the influence. Think of the term, “Drug Lord.”
Threat to hierarchy and differentiation? Think of the gentle, long-haired male hippie to reviled for being so hard to “tell apart” from the female. Think of the sharing.
Forbidden fruit? By erecting a prohibition it becomes an obstacle that becomes a model suggesting the very thing it seeks to prohibit. It exerts a powerful fascination, which invokes an inflamed desire to perform the banned act. Think of youthful fascination for drugs even their parents are not allowed to use.
Mimetic rivalry? There are always at least two beings who posses each other reciprocally, each of them the other’s scandal, each the other’s demon. Think of Hank and Walt in Breaking Bad. Think of drug taskforce warriors and drug dealers, circling one another, mutually obsessed, mutually destructive, endlessly escalating, endlessly violent. Endlessly co-dependent.
The scapegoat mechanism begins with the illusion of the need to kill the monster and ends with the propagation of myth.
Girard calls myths persecution texts written from the point of view of the persecutors, based on something real which it distorts. Think of endless TV drug busts with stern, arms crossed cops and prosecutors behind a mass of guns, drugs, and money. Over and over, the myth of “cleaning” up the street. Again and again, the real damage done by these raids and the treadmill of incarceration is dressed up in antiseptic, mythic garb—
Think of reefer madness, which continues with modification to this day: IQ points said to drop; schizophrenia said to be caused; gateways said to open. Stunningly bad science that only can be propagated by ideologues with something to hide.
Think of the countless movies and TV shows that identify any and all drug use as evil and destructive, and those selling those drugs as deserving of our collective rage. Think of the one-sided violence of over 50,000 SWAT raids each year retold in mythic form as heroic efforts against an infinitely armed, infinitely evil foe.
The substitution of animals for human victims was a major step in human history.
James points to various substitutions for human sacrifice; body parts, money, animals, as civilizing movements away from the worst of the ancient sacred. But he points out that while they modify its most egregious features, they didn’t fundamentally challenge the underlying violent sacred.
These reforms are echoed today by local reform efforts that trim but don’t fully eliminate punitive, punishing drug enforcement powers. There is, for example, the growing movement to help the opioid addict combined with a renewed determination to hunt opioid sellers. This actually hurts the addicted, as was the case with Prohibition, where it was not illegal to buy or drink, but it was illegal to manufacture, transport or sell alcohol, with disastrous results.
Partial reforms are humanely motivated but ultimately inadequate. As James puts it, One cannot fight mimetic rivalry piecemeal. One cannot simply cut off its tail one must resolutely crust its head.
Christ’s whole ministry was a revelation of people’s bondage to mimetic desire, and a demonstration of the way out
Once the gospel penetrated a culture, it inaugurated a more or less permanent, more or less acute sacrificial crisis because it revealed the victimary mechanisms and violence upon which the sacrificial rituals, myth, and taboos of the society were based.
Ancient societies, not unlike us, were like fish oblivious to the existence of water. Up to a point there were always sacrifices and angry gods to placate. Up to a point there has always been a drug war and punishing laws to fear.
James notes that the ancient system could not withstand illumination, hence the power of the Gospels to reveal the fetishizing of the Temple and the human, not divine, roots of violence. They gave voice to the innocent victim, even while on the cross. Similarly, drug reformers today open the curtain on an approach that cannot withstand rational, humane scrutiny.
The subsequent revolution includes liberation from slavishly following obscene restrictions: back then, Jews punished for marrying gentiles; today, people jailed for naughty plants. Back then, liberation from a wrathful, violent god; today, liberation from SWAT teams and a punishing court system. Then and now, it means being at one with the weakest among us—the victims of scapegoating.
Saul had read the Scripture with violent eyes as many others did. One can appreciate the blinding shock it must have been to be struck suddenly with the epiphany that exactly the reverse was true, that he was actually a persecutor.
This resonates strongly with our former cops, judges, and prosecutors who indeed had the scale fall from their eyes as they saw the light and repented. Their inescapable mission forevermore is to spread the gospel of legalized regulation, of ending the unthinking, blunt force oppression brought about by drug policies based on fear and scapegoating. He is not talking about a more perfect achievement of the same kind of righteousness, but a righteousness of a completely different quality, a transformation of the heart.
Sometimes the disease contains within it the seeds of its own cure. Our mirror neurons—the physiological unpinning of our ability to identify with others—has helped turn people against the War on Drugs. Suddenly—and it sadly needed the victims to change color and geographic location—we can identify with the addicted, those we recently dismissed as worthless, evil, “other.” Suddenly we can feel their pain.
And, paraphrasing James, we are on the “wrong” side of history to no longer feel their pain. We need to be one with the policy changes, as we are one with victims of this ancient, violent approach to drug use and misuse. We need to end this servitude in a joyous manner as we transform the unthinkable into commonsense, humane policy.
I don’t normally talk like this, but I really did feel blessed to be at the conference, to read James’ book, and to interview so many delightful, intelligent, and righteous (but never self righteous) folk.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.