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Of Course the Police Are Lying to You — but, Why?
In 1936, it was Reefer Madness, Louis Gasnier’s cinematic moral panic about high-school students who descend into an orgy of rape and murder after being enticed into trying marijuana. The history of Reefer Madness contains several wonderful bits of poetic juxtaposition: originally financed by a Christian ministry, the film became a profitable commodity after it was reworked for the “exploitation” circuit; it was later embraced by potheads as a kind of unintentional parody, and it almost certainly is the case that most of the people who have seen Reefer Madness today are marijuana users or were at one point; best of all, the film’s scheming drug pusher is played by Carleton Young, who is all but forgotten except for his immortal turn as the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, in which his most famous line is effectively the motto of the various propaganda offices serving in the so-called War on Drugs: When the legend and the facts are at odds, “Print the legend.”
The spirit of Reefer Madness lived on and found new energy in Reagan-era anti-drug campaigns, from “Just Say No” to “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” in which an egg-frying John Roselius gave a stirring performance much more memorable than his bit parts in Space Jam and Con Air. There were endless DARE lectures intended to leave the children of the Cold War “scared straight,” along with tall tales of the PCP Superman — whose sudden transformation, physical power, and ungovernable rage mark him as part of the long literary tradition that runs through Robert Louis Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde to Stan Lee’s Incredible Hulk — the myth of the “contact high,” legends about “flashbacks,” and a thousand baseless ghost stories about otherwise happy and healthy young people who, exposed to some drug or another, suddenly decide they can fly and fling themselves off balconies to their deaths.
(We even had that story in Lubbock, Texas, where you’d be damned hard-pressed to find a balcony high enough to kill yourself jumping off.)
In the 19th century, we had the Yellow Peril — Chinese immigrants and their opium. In our time, we have the . . . the other Yellow Peril, or the Yellow-and-Brown Peril: fentanyl, the legend of which combines old-fashioned Sinophobia with Trump-era Mexicanophobia. Of course fentanyl is a real thing. So are illicit Chinese drug factories and Mexican cartels. In 2020, nearly 70,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, mostly from fentanyl, a figure that was up sharply from the 50,000 opioid overdoses in 2019. Nearly 1 million Americans have died from drug overdoses of all kinds since 1999. (For comparison, alcohol-related deaths in the same time frame amount to about two-and-a-half times that number.) But as we have seen with everything from homelessness to violent crime, interested parties will reliably exaggerate things that are real problems, and, at times, will simply fabricate stories about them. For example, it is true that there are violent racists in the world, and it is also true that practically every campus hate-crime incident you’ve ever heard about is a hoax.
Which brings us to beautiful San Diego.
In early August, San Diego’s sheriff’s department put out a video purporting to show a trainee overdosing on fentanyl — and nearly losing his life — after merely being exposed to the stuff while processing evidence after an arrest. The deputy, David Faiivae, falls to the ground in a catatonic state after encountering a white powder that the sheriff’s office later identified as containing fentanyl. The sheriff’s office put out one of those now-familiar, po-faced propaganda videos, with Sheriff Bill Gore intoning seriously about the dangers his men face over corny background music and the usual heroic-cop posturing. The “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” moment comes when the deputy declares: “I’m Deputy David Faiivae, and I almost died of a fentanyl overdose.”
Except, he didn’t. Almost certainly.
It is physically impossible to overdose on fentanyl from the kind of exposure Deputy Faiivae experienced while being recorded on body-cam video. He was wearing gloves and long sleeves while handing bagged quantities of drugs. Even if he weren’t wearing gloves, he still wouldn’t have overdosed that way: Fentanyl cannot be absorbed through the skin in any significant quantity without some solvent, but even when such a solvent is present, as with the fentanyl patches that are given to some patients for pain, it would be practically impossible to overdose from brief accidental exposure. The same is true of inhalation of airborne particles: A study of workers in legal fentanyl factories found that at the highest concentrations found in those facilities, they would have to take off their protective gear and spend hours standing in a little haboob of opioid particles before even absorbing a clinical dose of the stuff, much less a life-threatening overdose.
The charitable explanation of what happened with Deputy Faiivae is that it was a mistake. The less charitable explanation is that it was a hoax.
The case for being charitable is not very strong here.
Among other things, the sheriff’s department did not bother to collect a sample from Deputy Faiivae for toxicological examination — after an episode that allegedly had him at death’s door. Think on that: A law-enforcement officer was, if this story is to be believed, almost killed in the line of duty, and the law-enforcement agency for which he works neglected to perform the most elementary investigation. The guy was dosed with Naloxone, a powerful drug used to counteract heroin overdoses. But the rest of the overdose protocol — breathing support, for instance — was completely ignored.
Why? Most likely, because he was not having an overdose.
Never mind the criminal question: Surely the insurance office would be interested in what happened — and it was only a few years ago that a San Diego sheriff’s deputy was charged with felony fraud for misrepresenting his physical condition for insurance purposes.
No physician ever diagnosed Deputy Faiivae with a drug overdose — the “diagnosis” came from the sheriff. Deputy Faiivae did not display any of the typical symptoms of a fentanyl overdose. Add all of that to the fact that he was never in a position to experience a fentanyl overdose to begin with, and it is difficult to credit the good faith of the sheriff’s department here.
So, what the hell is going on?
“There is a public-relations motive,” says Sheila P. Vakharia, deputy director for research and academic engagement at the Drug Policy Alliance. “If we see police out there putting themselves at risk, courageously exposing themselves to scary chemicals and drugs, then we think, ‘Obviously, these are good people doing good work.’ It motivates and sustains a commitment to the drug war. It gets people scared and angry, and this mobilizes people to support expanding police budgets, to make sure there are cops on the street, to spend any amount of money — whatever is needed to find these drugs and the people selling them and get them off the street. It mobilizes people’s emotions to get them to act in ways that are aligned with their agenda.”
It is a mistake to take police or prosecutors at their word in any matter — but especially in this one, where the record of fabrication and misinformation is so long and shameful. But the underlying political dynamic should be obvious enough: I’ve never met someone involved in issue advocacy who has said that the problem they were working on has been solved — they almost always say the opposite, that thus-and-such a problem has never been worse, that immediate action and massive spending are needed, etc.
You’ll never hear Randi Weingarten say that we are spending enough on schools, you’ll almost never hear a secretary of defense or a flag officer say that the military budget is too big and bloated, and you’ll rarely if ever hear a cop or a prosecutor say that the drug situation is anything other than a crisis and the worst that it ever has been. The same pattern holds true in politics: Every election, you’ll hear that the Other Party is the most dangerous it has ever been, that we are one election away from sliding into communism or fascism or whatever.
And it is all — all of it — bull.
It is lies and nonsense and self-serving dishonesty. Police departments will lie to you for the same reason a presidential campaign will lie to you: for money, power, and status. We should be clear-eyed about this. Our police departments and prosecutors’ offices are rife with misbehavior, some of it criminal, with abuses of power ranging from dangerous buffoonery to outright corruption. Conservatives tend to understand this easily when it comes to government schools or the IRS but are instinctively protective of police and military agencies. But a bureaucracy is a bureaucracy is a bureaucracy, and the same dynamics of institutional self-interest operate in all of them to some degree. On top of the usual interest in salaries, benefits, and pensions, police departments suffer from a terrible addiction: Police are hooked on being thought of as heroes. And some of them are heroes.
But most of them are, most of the time, something closer to tax-collectors. There isn’t anything inherently dishonorable in that. There’s a job that has to be done. It is what it is.
But that job has to be done honestly and competently, with high degrees of transparency and accountability.
There is reason to doubt that that is what is happening in San Diego.
This “overdose” drama requires independent investigation as a potential criminal matter. If the San Diego sheriff’s department staged this episode — which appears to be at least possible if not likely — then losing their jobs is the least Sheriff Gore, Deputy Faiivae, et al. should face. An open society cannot tolerate police who stage crimes or fake on-the-job medical traumas for public-relations purposes.
We can be confident that an overdose is not what happened in this case.
So, what did happen?
In Other News . . .
On the subject of drugs and drug policy, I was not persuaded by Aron Ravin’s piece, “Libertarians Were Wrong about Marijuana Legalization.”
Part of my criticism is alluded to above — taking police and prosecutors at their word that things are, invariably, worse than they have ever been — but part of it is that I don’t think Ravin quite gets what libertarians actually think about marijuana-legalization projects such as the one in Colorado.
There are, of course, utopians and ideologues, who insist that legalization is all upside and no downside, that it will end criminal cartels and produce enough tax revenue to provide free false teeth to every needy mouth from sea to shining sea. But that does not capture the fullness of opinion or analysis. As I argued in a 2015 National Review cover story on the Colorado project, legalization will always be a mixed bag, and partial legalization will be a very mixed bag in that the “presence of black markets in prohibition states ensures the presence of black markets and gray markets in legalization states.” Which, as Ravin notes, is something that has come to pass.
A useful point of comparison is Nevada’s limited legalization of prostitution. By most accounts, the sex business as practiced in Nevada’s legal brothels is better and safer for both sellers and buyers than is the criminal sex business on the streets, in casino bars, etc. But the legal-prostitution business in Nevada is very limited and very highly regulated, and, hence, much more expensive and less easily accessible than is illegal prostitution. It has had very little discernable effect on street-level prostitution in Las Vegas (prostitution is not legal in Las Vegas, in spite of what some poorly informed tourists believe) or throughout the rest of the state. From that point of view, Colorado is sort of Pahrump writ large: an improvement for those who buy and sell marijuana on the legal market, but not large enough to overcome the economic forces of the black market — or, more precisely, of the various black markets.
As many libertarian-leaning critics predicted, organized-crime penetration remains an issue in the upstream supply chain, where it is relatively easy to divert a few hundred pounds of legally grown marijuana here and there for very profitable black-market profit margins, and legalization creates special problems in nearby prohibition states. Those idiots getting arrested bringing Colorado marijuana into Nebraska are not getting caught with amounts that can legally be purchased in Colorado, but often with hundreds of pounds or more.
This is no surprise: The presence of Las Vegas and a thousand smaller gambling destinations has not eliminated illegal gambling in the United States. It hasn’t even eliminated illegal gambling in Las Vegas. There remain black markets in alcohol, tobacco, and other legal products, driven in part by taxes and regulations. There are licensed gun dealers and illegal gun traffickers, licensed bus operators and outlaw bus operators. (And, no surprise, there is some real overlap between the unlicensed gun merchants and the unlicensed bus outfits.) We should expect that there will always be illegal marijuana sales — for example, sales to minors.
It took decades to break the grip of organized crime on Las Vegas. It will take some time for corporate producers to squeeze the cartels out of the marijuana market — and it is possible that they will never squeeze illegal producers out entirely, because it is relatively easy to grow marijuana. Note that fentanyl is produced both legally for medical purposes and illegally for recreation and profit. The question is not whether legalization delivers some utopian transformation of unhappy social realities — it won’t, and most libertarian critics understand that — but whether the best harm-reduction strategy in the case of marijuana is sticking a gun in somebody’s face with a hearty “Just Say No!”
Our experience with that strategy so far suggests very strongly that it is not the most reliable one, and that it brings along with it some fairly terrible unintended consequences, on display in San Diego and elsewhere.
Words About Words
What’s a Viking? In 1820, no English-speaking person knew.
Viking is one of those unusual words whose date of entry into English is known precisely — it was introduced in 1820 by the Reverend John Jamieson, the great scholar of Scottish literary history, best known for authoring the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language. In 1820, he published editions of John Barbour’s “The Bruce” and Blind Harry’s “Wallace,” two biographical poems, with the word Viking appearing in his notes on the former.
But beyond that, it is a little hazy.
The word Viking appeared nowhere previous in modern English or in Middle English. But the Old English word wicing goes back in the records centuries farther than does its likely Old Norse cognate, vikingr, though some scholars are not convinced the words are directly related. The Norse vic and the English wic both can mean bay or inlet, surviving in English in placenames such as Greenwich — linguistically if not socioeconomically equivalent to Green Bay — and in the name of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, the “smoking bay.”
(Sandwich was a sandy bay, and by extension the settlement that grew up on that bay, before it was an earl or his lunch. And while there are some sandy bays in the Sandwich Islands, which we now call Hawaii, they were named in honor of the finger-food guy, who was also First Lord of the Admiralty.)
But a vikingr wasn’t a person — it was something a person did, an expedition of piracy. You weren’t a Vikingr, you were someone who went on a vikingr.
In that sense, vikingr is maybe a little like the modern English camper. Other than the words camping and camper, derived from camp (from the Latin campus, the site of a temporary military habitation), we don’t have a specific word for the antisocial activity of going into the wilderness to escape the comforts of civilization or for the benighted people who do it. The people who go on camping trips are campers, and the people who went on viking trips were vikingrs, and, eventually, Vikings.
But as far as the inhabitants of the British Isles were concerned, the Scandinavian pirates who terrorized their coasts and enslaved those they did not massacre were not Vikings — they were Danes, the “Deniscan” of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The Danes haven’t always been about social democracy and tasteful furniture design — they once were some of the ass-kickingest people in Europe. Many of those “Danes” were not from Denmark but from what are now Sweden and Norway, but, then as now, one breed of foreigner was much the same as another to a Yorkshireman.
Some drive-by prescriptivism:
Amit Katwala has written an essay about name discrimination in Wired, in which he notes that he was named after a famous Indian actor, whose name he goes on to spell a couple of different ways, all of them wrong. The actor is Amitabh Bachchan. I wouldn’t normally whack somebody over that (it’s not like I’ve never got a name wrong) but, if your whole essay is predicated on the power of names, you might want to double-check.
Amitabh Bachchan is one of the most famous men in India, someone with approximately 100 percent face-and-name recognition. But, outside of India, he is anonymous enough that he can fly commercial mostly unnoticed, as Jay Nordlinger reports after having encountered the movie star sitting quietly by himself in the Zurich airport.
Moving on . . .
Writing in the New York Times, Cassady Rosenblum insists “work is a false idol.” But all idols are false — the expression she and her headline writers are looking for is “false god.”
Speaking of Jay, do him a favor and remember that it is “forbid to” and “prohibit from,” not the other way around.
Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com
Home and Away
In California, it’s the Sage from South Central vs. the Schmuck from the French Laundry. More in the New York Post, an Alexander Hamilton Joint.
You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. Think of it as a course of treatment to cure you of populist sentimentality, if you suffer from that malady. You can also read in it a great deal more about Colorado’s marijuana-legalization efforts and prostitution in Nevada.
My National Review archive can be found here.
Listen to Mad Dogs & Englishmen here.
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A History of Private Life, Vol. III: Passions of the Renaissance. Part of a series exploring private life from ancient Rome to modern times. Terrifically interesting and insightful.
I suppose there is some sort of bipartisan sensation in watching Joe Biden execute Donald Trump’s Afghanistan program even more incompetently than the Trump administration might have been expected to do. At a special session of the House of Commons held to debate the situation in Afghanistan, multiple members of Parliament castigated Biden’s approach in the bitterest terms — they held him “in contempt,” as the Telegraph put it. In this, the British are only repaying the president’s obvious contempt for the United Kingdom. As one member of Boris Johnson’s cabinet put it: “The U.S. remains by far and away our most important ally — but we are not Washington’s most important ally by some stretch.”
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