Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Failure of Happiness (?)

This article, published today in the New York Times Magazine, is by far one of the strangest pieces about drugs and drug use that I've come across in quite some time.

It genders the drug user - an unnamed academic who succumbed to crack and cocaine in or around 2003 - in that the addict, who was a fit male who could apparently run 5ks in fifteen minutes (like my husband), was an extraordinarily talented and intelligent person who, either because of drugs or through them, had lost his way. His race is unmentioned, though we know that he was heterosexual ("the goal was to meet women"), and the author continually dotes on how skillful and accomplished he was. Unfortunately, the addict "lost his way," and even though his philosophical obsession was the search for happiness (and, seemingly, a search for God), the happiness brought on by the chemicals in crack was an unworthy and lethal substitute for the "real thing."

This is the first of what I'm sure will become many examples of the nostalgic lamentation of lives cut short by drugs. This fit, intelligent, talented young man - able to edit his older colleague's work and even suggest revisions - became "on edge and emotionally needy," a transformation from the idealistic and "chipper" young man he was before. Drugs had clearly cut him down in his prime, and the author obviously "care[s] deeply about him," enough to even write the addict's character letter. In this sense, the piece has some merit: it's true that crack, a drug too often associated only with poor and gritty urban cores, struck down talented academics along with homeless drifting addicts. An article that showcased how even after 1993, people - good, talented, professional people - were succumbing to a drug with America's worst reputation, might have been a way for us to negotiate our views, to realize that crack and cocaine - two powerful addictions - are not only "other people's problems." Maybe this piece could have had some heart. So why does the article end up being all about the author instead? Is it true that when we meet addicts, we prefer to turn their experience into a mirror of our own?

That the article centers more on the author's own experience of the man's addiction rather than the addiction itself is clearly reinforced by the last sentence: "But was I? Maybe there was nothing anyone could do." Here the focus is on the author's experience ("But was I?"), as he questions his own ability to help. But the problem is that he immediately, in the following sentence, diverts himself of any blame by suggesting that there was nothing anyone could do. We're all blameless in this situation; the addict killed himself. The author never mentions that it's fairly rare to die of a crack overdose in 2003. He never mentions that maybe there was more to the situation that a guy who found a false god in cocaine. He also never mentions anything that might bring the situation into perspective; there are no suggestions that maybe there was something we could do.

Instead, this article, like so many more than I'm sure I'll see, briefly examines the abject addict and then quickly looks away to analyze all the more closely the author himself. Addiction is a mirror in which we see our blameless selves. The addict who abandoned a promising academic career for the "false" and "deceitful" gods of crack and cocaine becomes nothing more than a conduit for the author to absolve us all: in his own devolution and death, the addict allows us to look away, be pardoned for not helping since there was "nothing we could do." This failure of happiness is, perhaps, the author's own. After all, the only thing that really seems to matter, in this article at least, is how the author feels about the addiction of someone else.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Government Calls It "Labor Therapy"

A report released Wednesday by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that 40,000 Vietnamese drug addicts are currently being held in 123 "rehabilitation centers" across the country, where they are denied actual treatment for their addictions and are forced to work in sweatshop-like conditions, doing things like "process[ing] cashew nuts, sew[ing] garments, and weav[ing] baskets," according to an article the The New York Times released yesterday. Many of these products are then shipped to first-world consumers, often without the knowledge of the company who initially ordered the work. That jacket liners were sewn in detention centers for Columbia Sportswear, for example, was a "surprise" to Peter Bragdon, senior vice president for legal and corporate affairs.

These centers, which the Vietnamese government promote as "labor therapy," were designed after the fall of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 and primarily target heroin addicts as a way to "restore their dignity and learn the value of hard work." They fail on both accounts, however: relapse rates are above 80%, primarily because the only "rehabilitation" the addicts receive are marching in formation and chanting slogans like "Try your best to quit drugs!"

These centers are primarily ways to ensure cheap labor for mass-produced goods without the additional responsibility of actually paying the workers or treating their health concerns. That it happens in Vietnam, particularly within programs designed by the old nationalist/communist government of the North Vietnamese, should perhaps not come as an enormous surprise. That it also happens in the United States should come as a surprise. But it does, and the Human Rights Watch would be wise to turn an eye to addict abuse in America as well.

I've found, in research I've been doing for an upcoming conference paper about teen drug rehabilitation in the United States, that both Teen Challenge houses and a series of Lester Roloff-inspired homes (both in Florida) have been charged with using their young residents to work as groundskeepers, housecleaners, professional 'beggars' (standing outside grocery stores asking for money), and telemarketers, often for payments of less than $.33 a day. The residents - teenagers whose parents enrolled them in these Christian-based rehab centers when their behavior became unacceptable - receive no real drug addiction counseling or rehabilitation. They're instead given the Jesus-based version of the Vietnamese slogan, "Try your best to quit drugs!" And the money they make in these ventures all goes straight back to the rehab centers themselves.

Most of these cases have taken place in states were government intervention in Christian-based enterprises is extremely limited (Texas, Missouri, and Florida, among others), allowing the flagrant abuses of teenagers to take place without any kind of regulation or restriction. These American centers too are designed to 'restore the teens' dignity and teach them the value of hard work.' But again, as in Vietnam, these "rehabilitation centers" fail on both accounts. Instead, the 'Christians' who run these camps profit from the work of innocent children, few of whom ever receive anything close to 'treatment.'

Unpaid labor straight from society's most abject - drug users - is quite clearly a global phenomenon.