This post was written in response to a prompt from a Black Literary Traditions course; felt it was worth posting here, too.
On March 20th, 2021, Black conservative author Candace Owens penned an opinion article on The Daily Wire, the headline of which reads: “Cardi B is a Symptom of a Sickness in Our Society.” The article was preceded by an eighteen-hour Twitter debate between the two women, sparked by Owens’ on-screen criticism of award-winning hip-hop artist Cardi B for a recent, sexually charged Grammy performance, and perpetuated by each woman’s oppositional views on paradigms of feminine presentation, respectability, and sexuality. “We are celebrating perversity in America,” Owens is quoted as saying, telling Cardi B she must “do better” (Nolan).
The dichotomy of views presented here are not dissimilar from those expressed between the Black “intellectuals” of the North and the Black “blues women” of the South in Hazel V. Carby’s “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” The essential core of the argument remains the same, where one party argues that objective displays of Black feminine sexuality perpetuates the long-established racial fetishization and exoticism of Black women by the white majority, and threatens to debase the community as a whole through “improper” representation. In speaking of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, Carby explains that the cultural backlash to racial objectification of Black women within certain communities, namely those in closest proximity to the hegemony, manifested as an avoidance of sexuality altogether: “The response of Larsen’s heroine to such objectification is also the response of many black women writers: the denial of desire and the repression of sexuality” (12). The other party accepts sexuality as an integral and important part of the lived experience of Black women, and likewise seeks to distance feminine sexuality from patriarchal dominance and reclaim the idea as an aspect of feminine liberation. Carby writes: “Their [blues women’s] physical presence was a crucial aspect of their power; the visual display of spangled dresses, of furs, of gold teeth, of diamonds, of all the sumptuous and desirable aspects of their body reclaimed female sexuality from being an objectification of male desire to a representation of female desire” (20). It is not difficult to see the strong resonance between the lyrical attitudes and visual presentation of historic feminine blues singers and the feminine leaders of contemporary hip-hop.
“Respectability politics” is a term used to describe a long-standing strategy adopted by African American women “to reject white stereotypes by promoting morality while de-emphasizing sexuality” (Pitcan, et al.). This entails behaviors such as code-switching, self-censure, curating a neutral image, and avoiding behavior or relationships which could be perceived by the ruling class as “lowly.” While the conservative side of the historic argument may appear on its surface to hold some validity—and often, at times, does offer avenues of upward mobility to subordinated groups—there is a dangerous precedent set in playing the respectability politics game, the most obvious problem being that appealing to Western culture as the governing authority perpetuates Western culture as the governing authority. Likewise, merely politely ignoring, rather than directly challenging, the stereotypes of Black women which are rife within white, Western culture allows these stereotypes to continue to be validated by white supremacy, as the cultural narrative is then primarily controlled by the oppressing class. This is an important stance that the blues-singing women of the Harlem Renaissance recognized: “The women blues singers occupied a privileged space; they had broken out of the boundaries of the home and taken their sexuality and sexuality out of the private and into the public sphere” (20). By leveraging their platform and refusing to adhere to the societal expectations of the governing authority, blues women allowed the narratives of large communities of Black women, specifically those further removed from the privileges of Western society, to be heard: “Many women heard the ‘we’ when Ida Cox said ‘I’,” explains Cardy (21). Hip-hop artists such as Cardi B, a single mother and former exotic dancer from a working-class background, likewise carry narratives and attitudes of feminine empowerment that do not pay heed to the arbitrary and racist constrictions of Western “propriety.”
Lastly, and most importantly, it’s easy to see that playing respectability game within an authority which economically and socially thrives on racism simply does not work. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is perceivably one of the most powerful Black women in American history; she is incredibly well-educated, articulate, economically viable, and has held one of the most highly respected positions in the United States government. This did not stop her from being openly criticized across mainstream media outlets for exposing her arms; for being too fit at times, and for also being too heavy at others; for being family-oriented; for not being “classy” enough; for wearing shorts; and even for placing her left elbow on a table (Kendall). These references don’t include the numerous hateful, stereotypical, and racially charged remarks regarding the former First Lady’s appearance and physical body by authoritative figures and prominent outlets (Kendall). If bourgeoisie oppressors cannot be bothered to buy into respectability politics even as Black individuals ascend to the very heights of the Western hierarchy, then what else could possibly compel them to? Nearly a hundred years ago, Bessie Smith recognized the futility of striving for approval, and her admonition in “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” still holds truth:
There ain’t nothing I can do or nothing I can say
That folks don’t criticize me
But I’m goin’ to do just as I want to anyway
And don’t care if they all despise me.
As always, thank you for reading.
Carby, Hazel V. “It Jus Be’s Dat Way Sometime: The Sexual Politics of Women’s Blues.” Radical Amerika, 1987, retrieved from https://library.brown.edu/pdfs/1142530423771460.pdf
Kendall, Mikki. “22 Times Michelle Obama Endured Rude, Racist, Sexist, or Plain Ridiculous Attacks.” Washington Post, November 2016, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/16/22-times-michelle-obama-endured-rude-racist-sexist-or-plain-dumb-attacks/
Nolan, Emma. “What Cardi B Said About Candace Owens as Spat Escalates to Legal Threats.” Newsweek, March 2021, retrieved from https://newsweek.com/what-cardi-b-said-about-candace-owens-spat-legal-threats-1576771
Pitcan, Mikaela, Alice E. Marwick and Danah Boyd. “Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, vol 23, issue 3, May 2018, pp.163-79, retrieved from https://academic.oup.com/jcmc/article/23/3/163/4962541
Christianity as a Weapon: The Appropriation of Western Constructs in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass”
This is a short paper I wrote for a graduate course in Black Literary Traditions. I was a bit disappointed in realizing that, although we were told to purchase a two-volume anthology of African American authors spanning two hundred years of literary craft, this course would focus almost exclusively on slave narratives. Although slave narratives undeniably play a critical role in the establishment of Black literary traditions, in my anecdotal experience, education in the United States seems doggedly determined to explore little of Black culture but the period of enslavement. This tunnel vision puts at our periphery a vivid, rich, unique, and compelling tradition of literature, political theory, poetry, and fiction which deserves exploration, critique, and response. I look forward to reading through the rest of the anthology on my own time.
I have other aspects about the course I find somewhat problematic, largely in how the material is presented and how prompts are composed, but they’re worth their own blog post, if I bother to get into them here.
John Adams is quoted as saying that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” and, technically, he would be correct: The United States Constitution was deliberately composed to omit any allusion or appeal to a god or higher power. Likewise, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Federalist Papers undeniably support the secular origins of our government, and writings and quotes from various founding fathers affirm the desire for the clear separation of church and state. Despite these inarguable goals set out by the founders, the United States has been endlessly contextualized as a “Christian nation,” both historically and today, and religion is frequently and openly weaponized by the ruling class to perpetuate patriarchal Western rule and the subjugation of oppressed classes, both domestically and abroad. Recognition of women’s rights and reproductive choice/bodily autonomy as well as issues pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality have all faced strong, organized opposition within state and federal governments on the basis of Christian values. The ruling class has likewise utilized Christianity to create justification for the aggressive colonization of independent nations, oppression and genocide of indigenous peoples, and enslavement. However, members of oppressed classes have historically sought out avenues to leverage Western constructs and ideals on their journey to liberation, borrowing the immaterial weapons of the ruling class and using them for their own ends. In the essay “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself,” Douglass’s emphasis on Christianity within the work can be argued as a deliberate appropriation of a prominent construct of the ruling class, utilized by Douglass as both an act of rebellion against the ruling class and a display of commonality to a potentially sympathetic audience.
The “Curse of Ham” is one of the more common Biblical justifications for the enslavement of Black peoples, though the narrative makes little sense outside of Biblical context: Canaan, son of Ham, who is the son of Noah, is punished by God with a life of servitude after Ham witnesses Noah drunk and naked. In the colloquial and more popular version of the story, Canaan is omitted from the narrative, Ham is identified as a Black person, and his descendants are purported as Black peoples of all nations; Ham’s “curse” is thus put upon all Black peoples by extension, and their darker skin is framed as a signifier of their inherent “sin,” justifying their enslavement (Rae). Douglass makes direct reference to this Biblical passage in his own narrative: “If the lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scripturally enslaved, it is certain that slavery in the south must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself, owe their existence to white fathers, and those fathers most frequently their own masters” (339). Here, Douglass showcases just one minor aspect of the hypocrisy between the Biblical justification of slavery and the material circumstances of enslavement. The commonality of slavery among Israelites and various snippets of the Old Testament were also popular in justifying slavery: “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ…” (Authorized King James Version, Ephesians VI 5-7). Slavery was also purported as providence to the necessary “civilization” of enslaved and indigenous peoples, who were contextualized in the Western hierarchy as savage, barbarous, immoral, lazy and so on (Rae). The manufacture of “slave Bibles” was not uncommon, removing portions of scripture that could be perceived as inciting rebellion. Aligning with the still-common Western view of the white savior role, slavery was frequently contextualized as divine intervention to allow enslaved peoples exposure to the messages of white Christians, which, in the oppressor’s view, assured docility among enslaved peoples and allowed for the supposed “charitable” nature of their enslavement.
English literacy, another Western construct commonly weaponized by the ruling class, played an integral role in the liberation of enslaved peoples. Literacy in enslaved peoples was heavily discouraged by the white majority for this very reason, as Hugh Auld demonstrates early in “Narrative.” English literacy opened the door not just to the most common and accessible form of communication, but for appropriation of other social constructs in the Western context, such as religion, but also gender roles and familial structures, laws, press and media, transportation, and so on. Yolanda Pierce, dean of the divinity school at Howard University, says on the subject, “As soon as enslaved people learned to read English, they immediately began to read the Bible, and they immediately began to protest this idea of a biblical justification for slavery… As soon as Black people took pen to paper, we [were] arguing for our own liberation” (Zauzmer). This is true of many narratives of the enslaved, though Douglass is a particularly prominent figure on the subject of Christianity as an argument against slavery. The continued popularity of Douglass’s narrative may reside in just how effectively he appropriates Western views and constructs through both his actions and his words, which showcases an undeniable commonality between the oppressed classes and the ruling class, encouraging solidarity and sympathy from the oppressor to the oppressed. Douglass adheres closely to the idealized forms of Western gender roles in both feminine and masculine characterization and frames his narrative toward the attainment of other common Western ideals, such as formal education, economic prosperity, physical prowess, social clout, bodily autonomy, and, most emphatically, an individualistic attitude. However, English literacy and, by its extension, Christianity, prove to be the weapons Douglass wields most effectively, marrying the two in scathing attacks demonstrating the egregious hypocrisy between purportedly Christian values and the actions of Christian peoples: “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ; I therefore hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” (Rae). In “Narrative,” the audience sees such behavior exhibited repeatedly by the ruling class, such as Thomas Auld’s quotation of scripture after the merciless whipping of a young, lame enslaved woman.
The acceptance or rejection of Western constructs continues to be a topic of concern for much of the Black population in contemporary America, as Blacks face both sustained and new opposition and gatekeeping in the fight for respect and recognition of Black personhood. While the enduring prominence and popularity of Douglass’s many narratives may be popular because of their adherence to Western sensibilities, such as Christianity, they have likewise received criticism for that same aspect. In examining Douglass’s “Narrative,” Valerie Smith cautions that “by demonstrating that a slave can be a man in terms of all the qualities valued by his northern middle-class reader—physical power, perseverance, literacy—he lends credence to the patriarchal structure largely responsible for his oppression” (55). In other words, there is a danger of appealing and adhering to the values and ideals of the oppressor, as this works to uphold and validate the same constructs used to oppress selected populations. Christianity, likewise, has proven to hold a problematic dichotomy for Black populations. While Douglass and others embraced Christianity for its “powerful and profound sense of hope,” many of descendants of the enslaved have “rejected Christianity as the religion of the oppressor,” opting to explore the Islamic and African spiritual tendencies of their ancestors (Zauzmer). Ultimately, authentic faith in the religion was not necessary for the enslaved, and acceptance of the religion may have simply been part of a long history of shrewd social coding which Black and other non-white populations quickly adapted to aid in their continued survival. Rather, mere recognition of the influence which Christianity held within the ruling white population held sway towards Black liberation. Like English literacy, Christianity proved to be an avenue which enabled enslaved Blacks to appeal to white oppressors on terms they both understood and preferred. The appropriation of Christianity by the enslaved population not only emphasized commonalities of humanity between white oppressors and Black enslaved populations, it also allowed the narratives of Christianity to be weaponized against the horrific, inhumane acts of white slavers and the institution of slavery itself, as whites no longer had exclusive access to this social narrative or others. As Pierce says, “[Black populations] very quickly learned that the only way we can be heard is to speak the language of our slaveholders, to speak to them about the text that they love, that they believe in” (Zauzmer). Until whites recognize and respect the sovereignty of Black voices—a struggle still hugely prevalent today, as Americans march by the millions in protest of the unqualified oppression, imprisonment, and murder of Black populations—these voices will likely be forced to continue speaking on the terms of the oppressor. However, in continuing to selectively utilize these Western constructs as weapons, Black populations can leverage them on their own terms, for their own means.
Douglass, Frederick. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.” Norton Anthology of African American Literature: Volume One, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Valerie A. Smith, third ed, 2014, pp.330-93.
Rae, Noel. The Great Stain: Witnessing American Slavery. Overlook Press, 2018, accessed via Google Books.
Smith, Valerie. Self-Discovery and Authority in Afro-American Narrative. Harvard University Press, 1991, p 55.
The Bible. Authorized King James Version, Oxford UP, 2021.
Zauzmer, Julie. “The Bible Was Used to Justify Slavery. Then the Africans Made It Their Path to Freedom.” Washington Post, 2019, retrieved from https://washingtonpost.com/local/the-bible-was-used-to-justify-slavery-then-africans-made-it-their-path-to-freedom/2019/04/29/34699e8e-6512-11e9-82ba-fcfeff232e8f_story.html
The following was a discussion post I put together for a Master’s lit course. The selected passage to be analyzed starts on page 85, from the paragraph beginning “Since about that time, war had been literally continuous” to the end of the chapter on page 91, which ends, “succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent, for the first time in several years” (page numbers from print edition).
Marx’s crisis theory asserts that the unsatisfiable demand for the generation of capital creates the very conditions which necessitate capitalism’s eventual collapse. Capitalism seeks to debase and disperse the power of labor—for example, through assembly lines or outsourcing—and as a result, wages fall. As a result of wage repression, corporate profits increase, roughly proportional to wage deflation. In order for these corporations to continue positive profit generation—now inflated by wage deflation—additional demand must be created in the market to sell more goods/services. However, the consumer pool purchasing these goods/services is generally the same pool of workers experiencing the effects of wage repression. The buying power of the market is thus reduced, and corporate profits cannot be elevated above the levels brought about by wage repression. As a result, labor is further dispersed and/or wages are further repressed to generate profits, and credit markets are inflated to compensate for a lack of discretionary income. Increased debt and decreased wages eventually generate a torrent of defaults, resulting in institutional and/or market collapse. In the United States, the housing market collapse and subsequent economic recession of 2008 serves as a material example of the contradictions outlined by Marx’s crisis theory.
Additionally, manufactured scarcity of employment, food, and housing are all common sociocultural stressors which result from the outlined contradictions created by capitalist modes of production. Despite necessitating these conditions through the governing economic structure, the Western sociocultural hegemony simultaneously exalts and values consumerism, material possession, and wealth accumulation as the highest markers of both social and moral valuation. These idealizations are necessary to continue compelling the consumer market to spend their wage in the consumer market, and thus satisfy the capitalist market’s singular interest of creating more capital. Capitalism demands the continued generation of massive capital wealth in a few hands while simultaneously and deliberately suppressing the purchasing power of the entire working class, thus demanding blood from stone.
In 1984, The Party relies on memory as a form of capital to justify its continued expansion and influence over the people, much the same way capitalism continuously demands the generation of monetary capital to justify expansion of production and consumerism. The concept of memory utilized as capital by the Party is demonstrated by the lengths exacted to see the Party’s narrative actualized: the literal and continuous altering and revising of historic fact and media account and the endless, cloying production and cultural emphasis of propaganda to be “bought” by the market. Take, for example, a Party slogan: “Who controls the past… controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (Orwell 41). In capitalism, those who control the capital control the market; those who control the market control the perceived value of capital. Marx explains that when capitalism “defines the relationship of wages to profit, it takes the interest of the capitalists to be the ultimate cause; i.e. it takes for granted what it is supposed to evolve” (718). Likewise, when the Party (inexplicitly) defines the relationship of memory to influence, it takes the interest of the Party to the be ultimate cause.
In the selected passage, contradictions showcased in Winston’s internal narrative serve as micro representations of contradictions presented by Marx’s crisis theory of capitalist production and class structure. Capitalism’s contradictions “demand blood from a stone” by degrading the wealth of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding wealth from the oppressed class; this is achieved by creating debt, “notes” of owed wealth deliberately issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be repaid in full. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse. The Party expresses this same contradiction by degrading the memory of the oppressed class while simultaneously demanding the actualization and adherence to a “remembered” narrative; this is achieved by creating information, “notes” of constructed and artificial reality that are issued with the awareness that they cannot and will not be sustained in full. Winston demonstrates: “There was no knowing how much of this legend was true and how much invented. Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence… Sometimes, indeed, you could put your finger on a definite lie” (Orwell 42-3). The Party builds by perpetuating its current version of reality, but simultaneously bankrupts the oppressed population’s perception of reality by constantly demanding revision. Again, Winston: “To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies… That was the ultimate subtlety” (Orwell 42). In this way, the Party likewise demands blood from stone. Though often delayed, the eventual result is collapse—some irreparable snag, like Winston’s known lie, can call into question the legitimacy of the entire structure.
Freud’s theory of personality presents a tripartite view of the self, three unique but interdependent systems which develop at various stages of life. The id is the earliest development of consciousness, representing biological or instinctual desires and demands. The id seeks to fulfill every demand immediately and has no perception of consequence, no awareness of reality or logic, and does not grow or change as a result of time or experience. When the demands of the id are satisfied, the self experiences pleasure; when these demands are delayed or ignored, the result is anxiety, tension, anger, or other forms of displeasure. The ego is the logical and reason-governed component of the personality. While the ego simultaneously seeks to fulfill the irrational and unrelenting demands of the id, it also works to avoid harm to the self, both literally and in terms of social harm or ostracization. The ego, however, does not govern morality; any action is good if it satisfies desire and avoids harm, any action is bad if one of these aspects fails. The ego is the sense of self-control, evaluating various methods of desire fulfillment and weighing those options against potential consequences based on known boundaries. The superego works as the conscience and informs the ego of the “ideal self,” or ego-ideal. The ego-ideal is a fantasized version of the self that drives the ego to operate beyond pleasure fulfillment and strive to work toward some greater goal or purpose.
Freud argues that the superego is largely informed by the parental figure(s). However, independent or separated from the parental units, humans are also necessarily informed by a governing culture. A child who was spanked by their parents might grow up to be an adult who does not spank their children, because the governing culture has influenced the moral paradigm of the superego. If a person shoplifts to obtain desire-fulfillment, the superego may inflict feelings of guilt or shame, if that person was raised in a culture which places value on corporate compensation. If that person was being initiated into a street gang, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might incite feelings of accomplishment or superiority in the superego. If that person was an anarchist, shoplifting to obtain desire-fulfillment might bring feelings of vindication and liberation in the superego. The superego’s morality is not inherent; it is a learned construct, based on the familiar values and taboos of the most influential authority to the consciousness at any given point in life.
In the selected passage, Winston’s internal narrative showcases contradictions between the superego, informed by the governing culture, and the ego, which strives to rationally fulfill the irrational, genetically encoded demands of the id. Winston, suffering from violent coughing fits, vigorously participates in the calisthenics program mandated by the Party. Despite being in physical distress—highly aversive from the pleasure-seeking impulses of the id and ego—Winston’s superego compels him to not only continue the action, but to feign enjoyment: “Wearing on his face the look of grim enjoyment which was considered proper… with a violent lunge, [Winston] succeeded in touching his toes with knees unbent” (Orwell 39, 43). Though this action seems innocuous on the surface, the greater implication is more sinister; the governing culture’s influence over the superego is strong enough to compel the self to override its most inherent instincts, such as pain avoidance, as a means of demonstrating fealty. The self is sustained and protected through learned physical and emotional boundaries, i.e. this action causes pain, and this action causes shame. These boundaries are created to keep the self alive and part of the social collective (thus, with a better chance of staying alive, and procreating). The Party’s ability to override these boundaries suggests the Party’s ability to compel the destruction of the self.
Contradictions created within the self are also showcased through the Party’s manipulation of memory. If sociocultural boundaries endlessly shift and alter, the ego and superego lack appropriate and/or accessible input to comfortably navigate sociocultural expectations. Because boundaries are essential to the self’s imperatives of harm reduction and social affirmation, their lack fosters a sense of unease and tends to easily trigger fight-or-flight mechanisms. Winston perpetually exists in this state, though he fights against it: “Never show dismay! Never show resentment! A single flicker of the eyes could give you away” (Orwell 43). Winston’s superego attempts to exert control over the immediate harm-reduction instincts of the ego because it is aware that the greater harm lies in the Party’s ability to make the self non-existent. The Party’s omnipotent reach and scope in rewriting sociocultural narratives, and thus memory, and thus reality, is to Winston, “more terrifying than mere torture and death” (Orwell 41). Winston’s superego contradicts imperatives of the id and ego to show fealty to the governing culture, but the self is still essentially acting in self-preservation, aware that dissonance from the moral paradigm of the superego necessitates death.
Freud, Sigmund. “Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 615.
Marx, Karl. “The Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, third ed, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, John Wiley & Sons, 2017, p 718.
Orwell, George. 1984. Houghton Mifflin Court, 1949, pp 39-44, accessed via Google Books.
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
Through literary theory, art is given an opportunity to take on new meaning. Literary theory challenges the critic to shed personal biases and presuppositions—a deliberate and artistic practice of cultural relativism—while critically examining “‘the best that has been thought and said in the world” through lenses that encourage profound interpretation, impart meaning, inform context, and expand worldviews (Bertens 5). Viewing the same work through alternate forms of literary theory can shed light on the values, patterns, structures, beliefs, and assumptions of any given viewpoint (Bertens 1-2). Rather than taking a piece of art at face value, literary theory encourages the interpreter to ask meaningful questions which uncover historical, social, or cultural context; to search for underlying themes and elements which refer to intentions or motivations in creating the work, whether unconscious or deliberate; and examine structures and elements in the form of the work, lending deeper understanding to what makes a piece of writing “literary”.
Literary theory and literary criticism are two different beasts, though on the surface, they can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from one another. Literary criticism focuses on the study, evaluation, and interpretation of literary works, generally with a focus on thematic elements, narrative, and characterization. Literary theory urges the critic move beyond the basic building blocks of writing and instead consider and interpret the nature, definition, and parameters of literature; the sociopolitical, economical, and cultural influences that inform a work; and the concrete form and structure of literary texts (Bertens 2-3). Where criticism often places the most emphasis on discovering meaning, much of literary theory dismisses meaning as ultimately arbitrary, and instead focuses on context. The nature of this context varies depending on what discipline of literary theory is emphasized by the interpreter. It is also pertinent to note that, like meaning, much of literary theory can also be considered as subjective to the interpreter.
Flannery O’Connor remains a highly respected American writer, particularly within the short story genre. Her work, typically categorized in the “Southern Gothic” style, often features grotesque characters, graphic violence, and dark humor; her writing deals predominantly in themes regarding religious salvation and societal alienation. In this paper, I intend to explore one of O’Connor’s most famous works, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” a short story concerning the violent death of a vacationing family by the hands of a motely crew of social outcasts. Through the lens of Marxist criticism, I intend to explore how both the protagonist (a middle-class grandmother) and the antagonist (an exiled hillbilly) of the narrative are both merely facets within the gem of O’Connor’s total worldview. The grandmother’s salvation at the time of her death is often regarded as the most significant point of the narrative; through the Marxist view, I will argue that O’Connor’s Misfit can be viewed as the most influential character of the story.
The school of thought known today as Marxism began in the mid-19th century, to the credit of German artist, writer, and philosopher Karl Marx and, to a lesser extent, his colleague, Frederic Engels. Marxism came about in reaction to the oppressive and autocratic social and economic standards that dominated Germany’s landscape during the Industrial Revolution (Bramann). Political activism was often regarded as a criminal endeavor; despite the risks, after receiving his doctorate, Marx “dedicated himself to the project of radically restructuring modern industrial society along socialist and communist lines” (Bramann). Both Marx and Engels—who first introduced Marx to the ideals of socialism and communism—became influential figures within a massive, international labor movement (Bramann). Marx played a significant role in the Revolution of 1848 as a newspaper editor; in the wake of the revolution’s defeat by the ruling monarchists, Marx fled Germany. He spent his remaining years in London, dedicating his life’s work to the study of economy, art, literature, nature, and science (Bramann).
In the simplest terms, the tenets of Marxist criticism rely on the premise that our social being influences our social consciousness. That is to say, the dominant hegemony—the economic structure and subsequent social hierarchy—of any given historical period aggressively shapes an individual’s personal worldviews (Eagleton 2). Additionally, residual and emergent hegemonies also play a role in social consciousness during periods of radical social change, which Marx argues are necessary for the evolution of society. The “economic base” of any given society consists of the means of production (tools in various forms), commodities, technological innovations, the ways we organize (such as the manager/subordinate relationship), and the proletariat/bourgeoisie dynamic (Eagleton 2). The “ideological superstructure” includes what Marxists would broadly refer to as our “consciousness,” meaning law, education, religion, art, literature, media—the elements which comprise culture (Eagleton 2). Marxism argues that the base largely informs the superstructure—our culture is defined by our market—though the relationship can certainly be regarded as reciprocal in some respects.
This explanation in no way exhausts the vast scope of Marxist philosophy. For the purpose of this critique, there is one particular tenant of Marxism that must be examined in further detail: Marx’s Theory of Alienation. In a precapitalistic society, the laboring class held some measure of autonomy: they made/forged/grew their own products, dictated their working conditions, set their own hours, bartered and sold directly, and so on (Bramann). Under capitalist rule, workers are alienated from their labor, with little or no influence over the means, process, product, and relations of production (Bramann). Ultimately, Marx argues, this separation from work fosters separation from our entire lives, as more and more of what the laboring class does is dictated by forces other than our own will. Put succinctly, the depersonalization of mass production works to estrange humans from their instinctively creative and productive nature. The Marxist view necessitates the abolishment of capitalism in order for society to actualize human autonomy.
In order to understand how Marx’s concept of alienation applies to O’Connor’s work, the historical context of O’Connor’s life must be examined. After all, it is the overarching economical constructs which, Marx argues, directly influence our culture, including literary work. O’Connor wrote “A Good Man is Hard to Find” in 1953, at a time of massive industrial change in America. Soldiers returned en masse to the labor force at the end of World War II; economic growth soared; mass production boomed; suburbs sprawled; populations grew; television became the dominant media force in American households (Beckman). Religious devotion, as well, saw an unprecedented rise in the post-war era. Amongst the burgeoning suburbs, highways, and shopping centers, couples were married, babies were christened, and religious—namely Christian—worship became an unquestioned standard of middle-class life (Beckman).
O’Connor was an only child, born into a prominent and devoutly Roman Catholic family in Savannah, Georgia. Writing was still considered an unorthodox profession for a woman in that time; O’Connor’s university scholarship and post-graduation acceptance into the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop was a testament to her talent in this regard (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor’s father died from complications of lupus when O’Connor was thirteen, and after being awarded an MFA from University of Iowa, O’Connor’s inheritance of the same disease saw her life relocated to a small farm in Milledgeville, Georgia (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor lived modestly, continuing to write as she raised peafowl with her mother—and occasionally travelling to lecture or speak at seminars—until her untimely death in 1964, at the age of 39 (Encyclopaedia Britannica). O’Connor never married, nor had children, which were particularly stark social deviations for a young woman in the throes of the post-war baby boom.
Small farming was one of the few industries that saw massive decline in the post-war economic boom. As the middle-class grew and demand for food production exponentially increased, corporations began aggressively shaping agricultural consolidation throughout the United States, leaving family farmers to either be bought out or try their best to compete against the overwhelming forces of cheap, mass-produced livestock and crops (University of Groningen, 2012). This consolidation left many farmers displaced from an industry which traditionally was passed down through generations; perhaps O’Connor perceived herself as alienated to some extent from her true “creative” self because of the economic demands of her “laboring” self, brought about by the loss of the typically-breadwinning patriarchal family figure. This is one of many possible demonstrations of Marx’ alienation at work, similar to the social and economic alienation so often featured in O’Connor’s writing, including “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. An alternate viewpoint might be that O’Connor’s return to the farmstead was instead a fulfillment of human autonomy; through separation from the ruling class, O’Connor had gained complete freedom to dictate the means, conditions, relations, and products of her labor, both in her writing and in her farming.
O’Connor’s educational success and literary accolades could not counteract the economic depression she and her mother were pigeonholed into after her father’s death; it is likely their small peafowl farm struggled to some extent, like most others, under the corporation monopolization of farming practices. It does not seem out of the realm of possibility that O’Connor expressed some measure of her social displacement through her writing: a prestigious, devout, and yet socially rebellious woman, riddled with talent and illness alike; a woman who came from a once-prominent family and who had achieved a high level of education, eventually reduced to a bed-ridden, working-class farm life (Encyclopaedia Britannica). In a Marxist examination of “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” the characterization of both the grandmother and the Misfit would suggest two conflicting and alternating worldviews that O’Connor attempted to reconcile through her craft.
O’Connor remained pious throughout the entirety of her life, her personal journals often concerning themselves obsessively with channeling her Catholic religion through her writing (O’Connor). Marx famously argued that religion was merely another man-made ideology—“ideology” specifically in the Marxist sense, encompassing all the various elements which inform our culture—dictated by the hegemonic forces of any given society, meant only to impart a false sense of purpose and moral sanction in an increasingly purposeless regime: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people” (Marx). It is obvious from O’Connor’s journals that she felt endlessly compelled to bring her faith to the forefront of her life’s work, which suggests, at some level, there existed an internal struggle against her religion. I believe this struggle is documented in the character of the Misfit, as well as in the other violent, grotesque, cynical, and faithless characters featured in her body of work.
The character of the grandmother deals predominantly with issues of social affirmation, wealth, and status; these would suggest concerns of the bourgeoisie, or the ruling class. For example, the grandmother disparages the casual dress of her son’s wife, opting to clad herself in stately attire for a long road trip to Florida: “In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady” (O’Connor). Even at the thought of her own fragile mortality, the grandmother is entirely concerned with keeping up appearances of social hierarchy. Though putting forth all the surface appeal of a “good Christian woman,” the grandmother is generally selfish, vapid, and petulant in her actions and dialogue; she lies, panders, and has little regard for anyone but herself (Leonard 52). Even as her entire family is systemically murdered before her, the grandmother continues to plea with the Misfit only for her own life: “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” (O’Connor). O’Connor’s subversive criticism of American religious culture through the grandmother character suggests a certain level of dissatisfaction with the generally shallow religious discipline of the middle-class; perhaps, particularly when viewed in conjunction with the content of her personal journals, it also suggests a dissatisfaction in the depth of her own faith: “Oh God please make my mind clear. Please make it clean. I ask You for a greater love for my holy Mother and I ask her for a greater love for You. Please help me to get down under things and find where You are” (O’Connor).
The grandmother’s supposed salvation comes moments before she is shot dead by the Misfit; after a moment of religious doubt (“Maybe He didn’t raise the dead”) the grandmother is possessed by the spirit of Christ (O’Connor). In a stereotypically Catholic “moment of grace,” she recognizes the Misfit as simply another child of her god, and thus by her possession, a child of her own: “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” (O’Connor). The grandmother attempts to usher the fervor of her faith—perhaps literally, perhaps figuratively—upon the Misfit, who “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest” (O’Connor). O’Connor spent much of her time defending this violent end to critics and readers alike, arguing that the murder of the grandmother was necessary to her spiritual realization: “The devil accomplishes a great deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective” (Leonard 52). The grandmother’s last pious exclamations and her contented post-mortem expression both offer religious affirmation and reinforcement of hegemonically-dictated roles: she finds joy in death in the recognition of her “child,” affirming her matriarchal status; she achieves deliverance from the mortal realm by the hands of a male (the Misfit) into the hands of a male (God), affirming patriarchal positions of power.
In stark contrast to the character of the grandmother, the Misfit is not in any way concerned with appearances or adherence to social norms, starting with deviations as minor as appearing to the family without a shirt on, ending with the mass-murder of the group under little to no pretense (O’Connor). Where the grandmother has wholly conceded herself to the dominant hegemony of 1950s America, the Misfit lives beyond it: working when, where, and how he pleases; living as a nomad; rejecting religion for his own moral code; learning independently; collaborating only with those he chooses; and yes, even murdering, the starkest of social deviations. The grandmother, in comparison, adheres to appearances; places upmost value on wealth and status; clings to superficial religious ideals without explicitly practicing them; and is hopelessly self-centered (Leonard 52-3). The Misfit recognizes the grandmother’s supposed spiritual awakening for what it is: “only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself” (Marx). The Misfit vehemently rejects the grandmother’s imposed salvation upon him, recognizing that her personal ideals only materialized in the ultimately selfish moment of her demise: “’She would of been a good woman,’ The Misfit said, ‘if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life’” (O’Connor).
The alienation of the Misfit in the
narrative is different than alienation in the Marxist sense; however, I argue
that O’Connor’s own (Marxist) alienation from her true “creative” self—through
labor, through patriarchal rule, through illness—spurs the need to endlessly
negotiate these barriers in the body of her work. I also argue that, through a
Marxist lens, it is the Misfit who serves as the grotesque antihero of the
narrative; a man who has achieved as much human autonomy as can be afforded
under a ruling capitalist regime. The grandmother and her family have bowed
under the weight of the dominant hegemony, and the end result is death; the
protagonist is ultimately afforded nothing more than her precious “opium,”
while the Misfit continues on with life as he sees fit. In a microscopic
example of the societal cycle Marx predicts, the governing class is overthrown
by the revolutionists. The Misfit holds no false preconceptions about the man
he is, and makes little in the way of moral judgments for what he does; he
allows himself simply to exist, and to exist in ultimate freedom, living closer
to Marx’s ideal of “true self” than any other character of the narrative. O’Connor’s
endless flirtation with the binaries of faithlessness/salvation,
inclusion/alienation, and domination/subordination could all be considered as
reflections of an internal struggle against her “true” self and the imposed
societal standards and structures of post-war, capitalist America.
Beckman, Joanne. “Religion in Post-World War II America”. Duke University, 2000, retrieved from nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/trelww2.htm
Bramann, Jorn K. Educating Rita and Other Philosophical Movies. Nightsun Books, 2009, retrieved from faculty.frostburg.edu/phil/forum/Marx.htm
Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. Taylor & Francis Group, 2014, ProQuest Ebook Central, retrieved from ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/snhu-ebooks/detail.action?docID=180126
Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Flannery O’Connor”. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, 2019, retrieved from britannica.com/biography/Flannery-OConnor
Leonard, Douglas N. “Experiencing Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’”. Interpretations, 1983, retrieved from https://www-jstor-org.ezproxy.snhu.edu/stable/23241513?seq=5#metadata_info_tab_contents
O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. 1953, retrieved from http://xroads.virginia.edu/~drbr/goodman.html
O’Connor, Flannery. “My Dear God”. New Yorker, 2013, retrieved from newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/16/my-dear-god
Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”. Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, 1844, retrieved from marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm, accessed 11 February 2019. University of Groningen. “The Post-War Economy: 1945-1960”. GMW, 2012, retrieved from let.rug.nl/usa/outlines/history-1994/postwar-america/the-postwar-economy-1945-1960.php
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2019, all rights reserved.
I. Introduction and Historical Background
Participants of perceived social deviance throughout the 1950s and 60s—the emergence of hippie culture, “free love,” the Civil Rights movement, and protest of the Vietnam war—were often directly (though not always fairly) associated with drug use; the most common and widespread association being the recreational use of marijuana. That association likely helped to facilitate marijuana’s inclusion into the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 by the Nixon administration. However, negative connotations with the substance began in the early 1900s, after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 saw a massive influx of Mexican immigrants into the United States (Hay, 2015).
Recreational use of marijuana was an established and integral part of the Hispanic culture, and the drug quickly began to take root in the United States, particularly in the south. Prohibition of alcohol had almost immediately made marijuana an attractive, easily accessible, and largely unregulated choice for recreational pleasure (Schlosser, 1994). However, growing racism and prejudice against the influx of immigrants was further inflamed by narratives of the “Marijuana Menace,” a drug which was suddenly and intentionally purported to corrupt morality and incite violent crime (Frontline, 2014). Even the common name we now use for the drug—“marijuana”—was an intentional push to associate what had previously been referred to as “cannabis” with Mexican culture, and thus further inflame the growing anti-immigrant sentiments of the Depression era (Thompson, 2013).
Examples of anti-marijuana propaganda (Sullum, 2018)
Much of this misinformation and anti-marijuana propaganda was deliberately fueled by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. Narcotics Commissioner and leader of the federal Prohibition agency—the originating government agency which would later evolve into the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Anslinger recognized that he was facing potential unemployment when alcohol prohibition ended in 1933, and he swiftly turned his efforts instead to the criminalization of marijuana. Cultural stresses due to the massive financial recession had already created an atmosphere in which much of the white population feared a further shortage of resources and employment from the Hispanic population seeking asylum in the United States. Anslinger recognized and capitalized on the fears and prejudices of the time. In a 1937 testimony before Congress urging federal restriction on marijuana, Anslinger stated: “I wish I could show you what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to one of our degenerate Spanish-speaking residents. That’s why our problem is so great; the greatest percentage of our population is composed of Spanish-speaking persons, most of who are low mentally, because of social and racial conditions” (Thompson, 2013). These sweeping, stereotypical, and factually untrue assumptions point toward the deeply problematic and unsound correlations between race and criminality which still permeate every level of the American justice system today.
At the outset of marijuana prohibition, the federal government encouraged any concerned state governments to regulate marijuana independently. By 1931, twenty-nine states had outlawed the substance, and the 1937 Marijuana Stamp Act—again, largely facilitated by Harry Anslinger—effectively criminalized the drug for recreational use (Frontline, 2015). Later reports commissioned by the Kennedy administration supported decriminalization of marijuana due to the perceived low risks of its use. Substantial evidence contradicted previous claims of the dangers of marijuana, but the plant was ultimately classified as an illegal Schedule I Narcotic by the Nixon administration in 1970. This inclusion was made against a report made by the Shafer Commission, a bipartisan committee appointed by Congress to provide recommendations on the regulation of marijuana (Frontline, 2014). The Shafer Commission determined personal use of marijuana should be decriminalized; Nixon vehemently opposed this recommendation (Hay, 2015). Despite the effective prohibition of the substance, eleven states still made the decision to decriminalize marijuana throughout the 1970s and many more lessened their penalties for possession. Today, twenty-nine states have legalized medical marijuana, eight states have legalized recreational use for adults over twenty-one years of age, and almost all states have deprioritized marijuana-related offenses, but the substance remains illegal at the federal level.
II. Cultural Beliefs and Biases
In researching recent efforts in marijuana legalization, it’s become apparent that only a small handful of the total population in the U.S. still holds to the antiquated belief that marijuana is a dangerous or risky substance in need of stringent regulation. Most states now consider the substance legal in some capacity, and two-thirds of Americans support federal legalization (NORML, 2017). The cultural belief that marijuana is dangerous never actually stemmed from scientific evidence, but rather from lingering associations with negative stereotypes deeply rooted in racism and prejudice.
Staggering unemployment rates during the Great Depression fueled resentment and distrust of incoming Mexican immigrants, and their cultural association with marijuana was ample fuel for Anslinger’s newest crusade after the end of alcohol prohibition (Frontline, 2014). Likewise, marijuana also had a long history of being used as a sedation drug for slaves throughout Jamaica and the Caribbean; forced use of the substance eventually evolved into an accepted, recreational habit in these cultures as slavery slowly came to an end (Hay, 2015). Since hundreds of thousands of these slaves were eventually imported to the United States, recreational marijuana usage had also become a normalized part of the African-American culture. So, an existing association of marijuana with perceived “second-class citizens” or those who were “racially inferior” was further exploited and inflamed by political agenda.
The persisting cultural belief that minorities compromise the majority of drug users has led to institutionalized and systemic racism within the justice system. Historically, minorities have been arrested, convicted, and served time for minor drug offenses at ten times the rate of whites faced with similar charges (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). This demonstrates how an issue that begins as an individual belief or bias can become deeply engrained in societal norms: a relatively minor cultural association between minorities and drug use is propagated and enflamed by political agenda; government propaganda causes this belief to become entrenched in our society; societal belief leads to targeting by law enforcement for these crimes; established bias also creates the more likely outcome of conviction by a jury after arrest. Perceived deviant behavior is most often regulated by law in our society, and we are only now beginning to see a shift in the legislation to reflect our culture’s changing perceptions on marijuana use. One major player with vehement resistance against legalization is the American pharmaceutical industry.
Though in the past, Americans often inherently believed and trusted the advising of government agencies such as the Federal Drug Administration, growing turmoil amid the opioid crisis and other public health threats has created an overwhelming sense of mistrust with many aspects of government regulation (Norman, 2016). The current quasi-legal status of marijuana is no exception. Despite threats to enforce federal laws, numerous representatives and state governors are standing their ground against the current administration’s threats against legalization (Tumulty and Sullivan, 2018). There has been a significant cultural shift against the idea that government agencies are diligently working with the peoples’ best interests at heart. The state-by-state legalization of marijuana is another example of how individualism can have a massive impact on societal institutions. Over time, both anecdotal and scientific evidence demonstrated that marijuana is in fact a beneficial drug, with a low rate of risk and dependency. As a result, our societal view on the supposed deviancy associated with marijuana use slowly began to change. A movement that started with a handful of grassroots activists has now swept the majority of states and the regulation of marijuana is being challenged at the federal level.
III. Social Roles
Despite the overall shift in cultural acceptance of marijuana, the acceptance of medical usage has been more widespread than recreational use. Stereotypes of “stoners” or associations with laziness and social deviance have persisted against those who choose to use marijuana recreationally, which has manifested in the slow progression of legality of recreational marijuana. Recreational users in legal states are also subject to more stringent purchasing limits than those who are medically licensed, and still cannot legally grow their own plants (Wells, 2017). All users are still subject to stringent local laws regarding where and when they can consume and under what circumstances.
Many recreational users still feel the need to hide use from employers, family, and friends due to lingering discriminatory attitudes against marijuana versus other recreational substances, such as alcohol, though that stigma appears to be waning nationwide (Brooks, 2016). A significant milestone in that shifting attitude was the 2017 introduction of legal “pot clubs,” in Colorado. Pot clubs are private venues where recreational users can smoke and socialize, much like your average bar (Markus, 2017). This filled a growing need in the marijuana tourism industry, as most tourists coming to Colorado risked fines from hotels for smoking privately or encounters with police for smoking publicly, effectively giving tourists the opportunity to buy but denying them the opportunity to smoke.
There are still issues of social inequality for medical and recreational users alike. It is important to note that in the process of obtaining a medical license, a doctor provides a recommendation for medical marijuana use, not a prescription. Due to marijuana’s persisting illegality at the federal level, there are no HIPPA protections for those that medically use. Many people have found themselves unemployed or unable to obtain employment due to corporate drug screenings – unlike prescribed medications, marijuana use can still be discriminated against by employers, even for those who are medically licensed (Flock and Taylor, 2012). Our culture creates a dysfunctional view of marijuana use because of the separation of these two roles. On the one hand, we are willing to give the sickest and most vulnerable of our citizens complete access to this drug, which was initially only available legally to those with terminal or life-threatening illnesses such as cancer or HIV (Thompson, 2018). On the other hand, despite zero associated deaths, a relatively low dependency rate, and a wealth of benefits (such as lowered opioid dependency, lowered crime rates, and benefit for those with anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses, epilepsy, and other non-life-threatening disorders), our society has stalled against access to marijuana as a recreational substance available for use to the public. Our major societal institutions—the law, the government, and most religions—still brand the drug as dangerous, addictive, and ultimately harmful to the quality of life. The unrelenting bias of the federal government, instigated by political agenda and fueled by corporate investment, creates a conflict of scientific evidence against law; our cultural conflict of allowing access to a relatively innocuous substance for those who are ill but restricting it for those who are not is ultimately divisive and perpetuates the myths surrounding marijuana use.
IV. Social Issues
There persists an issue of discrimination against those who have criminal records relating to marijuana use in now-legal states. Drug convictions can disqualify citizens from educational loans, housing, job opportunities, and most importantly, the ability to vote. California is leading the way in this aspect, with numerous counties now allowing prior marijuana convictions to be sealed or expunged from criminal records after a petition process (Quinton, 2017). Still, this process is slow and expensive; many of those with criminal records lack the means to be able to begin petition. The issue remains rampant in many other states, particularly those without recreational legalization. These convictions have largely plagued minority communities (Drug Policy Alliance, 2018). Though marijuana arrests have sharply declined due to deprioritization and legalization, this issue continues to feed the faulty belief that marijuana is largely used by minorities; they are simply more likely to be punished for it.
Gerrymandering via drug conviction is an example of how racism continues to influence our societal institutions. Societal bias causes minorities to be disproportionately targeted for drug offenses by police, which means minorities overwhelmingly carry criminal convictions throughout their lives (Thompson, 2018). As a result, large groups of people—primarily African-Americans—have lost their ability to vote for representatives in their communities and their government. It’s estimated that one out of thirteen African-Americans (seven percent of the national population) is currently disenfranchised (Green, 2016). The voices of these communities then go unrepresented year after year, which means issues such as the sealing of drug convictions are left unaddressed unless those without drug convictions choose to get involved in the matter. The constituents most in need of representation are effectively silenced; governing societal institutions are then slow to change; in reflection of our laws, negative cultural biases persist.
Additionally, prior drug convictions have barred tens of thousands of minorities from the ability to enter the legal marijuana industry: Almost all twenty-nine states have varying laws barring or restricting previous drug offenders from seeking employment in both the recreational and medical marijuana industries (Thompson, 2017). A massive report issued by the American Civil Liberties Union, based on nine years of data compiled by U.S. Census and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program from 2001-2010, concluded that the African-American population across the entirety of the U.S. is “3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, even though Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates”; thus, people of color disproportionately hold criminal records related to drug possession despite a negligible difference in the reported rate of use between the minority and white populations (ACLU, 2013). The majority of legalized states include “Good Moral Character” clauses which entirely prevent individuals with any prior drug-related convictions to participate in the legalized marijuana industry (Thompson, 2017). Only Oregon and California allow those with prior drug convictions to hold a position within the legalized industry, and only after an arduous and expensive process of sealing or overturning former convictions (Thompson, 2017). For most, hiring a lawyer and participating in the lengthy legal process is simply not a viable option.
Essentially, minorities have been unfairly targeted for illegal possession and distribution of marijuana for decades; now that the substance is legal, they have been widely excluded from participation in the legal market. Because of the quasi-legality, the black market for marijuana has now dwindled, leaving the lucrative financial benefits of the industry overwhelmingly in the hands of the white population: the population which first demanded criminalization the substance; purported and encouraged associations between marijuana, minority races, and criminal behavior; and then demanded and shaped the substance’s legality for our own personal benefit and monetary gain. Those who distribute illegally are still subject to penalty under the law, which continues to perpetuate the harmful societal associations with minorities and criminal behavior. The gentrification of the marijuana industry is a reflection of the larger issue of racism that still permeates nearly every aspect of our society.
V. Challenging Social Conditions
Marijuana is challenging the current state of politics in its pseudo-legal status: while legal in some form in the majority of states, the drug remains illegal at the federal level. Despite bipartisan support of ending prohibition, current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made numerous threats to begin enforcing federal laws regarding marijuana, something which was publicly “unprioritized” under the Obama administration (Angell, 2018). Legislation was introduced March of 2018 by 62 bipartisan representatives, requesting that the federal government not pursue prosecution of individuals and businesses complying with local state laws concerning medical and recreational marijuana (Angell, 2018). The provision was approved by the House floor and was adopted by the Senate Appropriations Committee, but the Sessions is still able to direct the efforts of the Drug Enforcement Administration as he sees fit. This creates a dysfunction in our society because even those operating legally under state law have a looming threat of federal enforcement of their trade.
In the past, arguments against marijuana legalization often centered around two issues: increased adolescent drug use and increased crime rates (including DUIs). The newest data—still limited information, due to the brevity of the period of legality—has shown no negative correlation to these issues. In fact, legalization has decreased gang violence, illegal trafficking, and violent crime rates in border states; decreased crime rates overall in legalized states; and despite steadily rising teen drug use over the past two decades, has not been shown to further facilitate or encourage drug use in youth residing in legalized states (Messamore, 2017; Sarich, 2014; Ingraham, 2017). This preliminary data was surprising to opponents and even some supporters of legalization. However, it is still too early to definitively see the long-term impact that legalization will ultimately have on states and their communities; federal legalization would likely have a significant impact on accessibility and regulation.
Decriminalization of marijuana has also challenged social perceptions. As mentioned before, in the throes of a nationwide opioid epidemic, attitudes are shifting not only positively toward marijuana usage, but negatively toward the pharmaceutical industry as a whole (NORML, 2017; Norman, 2016). The pharmaceutical industry has spent the past decade under intense public scrutiny for unethical practices such as price fixing, artificial inflation, and offering extravagant kickbacks or incentives for doctors to unnecessarily or over-prescribe medications (Norman, 2016). One of the end results of these profit-driven practices has been a nationwide opioid epidemic; it recently became enough of a problem to be declared a “Public Health Emergency” by the current Trump administration (Allen and Kelly, 2017). Many states have turned to marijuana legalization not just as a source of tax revenue, but also as a means to combat exponentially rising opioid dependence and its related fatalities. The pharmaceutical industry has thus lobbied adamantly against legalization, funneling money to anti-legalization groups nationwide and keeping the pockets of powerful political figures – such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions – generously lined (Ingraham, 2016). The industry continues to purport the idea that marijuana is dangerous while simultaneously working to synthesize the drug artificially, the ultimate goal there being to have control over the trade of THC.
While many who used marijuana were previously subjected to negative stereotypes concerning “stoners,” “hippies,” or “drug users,” two-thirds of the American population now supports ending marijuana prohibition. As the declining opioid use in legal states shows, many people realize that the numerous benefits of marijuana are a viable alternative to often risky and highly addictive prescription medication. As with the ending of alcohol prohibition, the cessation of marijuana prohibition at the federal level will be a battleground slowly won, state by state.
Allen, Greg and Amita Kelly. (2017). Trump administration declares opioid crisis a public health emergency. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2017/10/26/560083795/president-trump-may-declare-opioid-epidemic-national-emergency
Angell, Tom. (2018). Stop Jeff Sessions from busting medical marijuana, bipartisan lawmakers demand. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tomangell/2018/03/16/stop-jeff-sessions-from-busting-medical-marijuana-bipartisan-lawmakers-demand/#5e5932ab1a74
Brooks, Megan. (2016). More US adults using marijuana as attitudes change. Medscape. Retrieved from https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/868282
Drug Policy Alliance. (2018). From prohibition to progress: A status report on marijuana legalization. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/legalization-status-report
Flock, Brian M. and M. Edward Taylor. (2012). Medical marijuana and drug testing – what employers need to know. MRSC. Retrieved from http://mrsc.org/Home/Stay-Informed/MRSC-Insight/Archives/Medical-Marijuana-and-Drug-Testing-What-Employers.aspx
Frontline. (2014). Marijuana timeline. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dope/etc/cron.html
Green, Matthew. (2016). States where convicted felons can’t vote. KQED. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/lowdown/11897/map-felon-voter-disenfranchisement-by-the-numbers
Hay, Mark. (2015). Marijuana’s early history in the United States. Vice. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/xd7d8d/how-marijuana-came-the-united-states-456
Ingraham, Christopher. (2016). One striking chart shows why pharma companies are fighting legal marijuana. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/07/13/one-striking-chart-shows-why-pharma-companies-are-fighting-legal-marijuana/?utm_term=.2cdbd207e68d
Ingraham, Christopher. (2017). Following marijuana legalization, teen drug use is down in Colorado. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/12/11/following-marijuana-legalization-teen-drug-use-is-down-in-colorado/?utm_term=.12eef3b0e77b
Messamore, W. E. (2017). Marijuana legalization is reducing violent crime in border states. IVN. Retrieved from https://ivn.us/2017/07/06/marijuana-legalization-decreasing-violent-crime-border-states/
Norman, Jim. (2016). American’s views of pharmaceutical industry take a tumble. Gallup. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/poll/185432/americans-views-pharmaceutical-industry-tumble.aspx
NORML. (2017). All time high: New poll shows two-thirds of Americans support marijuana legalization. Retrieved from http://blog.norml.org/2017/10/25/all-time-high-new-poll-shows-two-thirds-of-americans-support-marijuana-legalization/
Quinton, Sophie. (2017). In these states, past marijuana crimes can go away. The Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from http://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2017/11/20/in-these-states-past-marijuana-crimes-can-go-away
RAND Corporation. (2018). Link between medical marijuana and fewer opioid deaths is more complex than previously reported. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/news/press/2018/02/06.html
Sarich, Christina. Colorado crime rates down 14.6% since legalizing marijuana. Natural Society. Retrieved from http://naturalsociety.com/colorado-crime-rates-14-6-since-legalizing-marijuana/
Schlosser, Eric. (1994). Reefer madness. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/08/reefer-madness/303476/
Sullum, Jacob. (2018). Fear of Mexicans, not blacks, led to Kansas ban on marijuana. Reason. Retrieved from https://reason.com/blog/2018/01/10/fear-of-mexicans-not-blacks-led-kansas-t
Thompson, Beverly Yuen. (2017). As marijuana becomes legal, the legacy of structural racism still haunts many. Sociology in Focus. Retrieved from http://sociologyinfocus.com/2017/02/as-marijuana-becomes-legal-the-legacy-of-structural-racism-still-haunts-many/
Thompson, Matt. (2013). The mysterious history of ‘marijuana’. National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201981025/the-mysterious-history-of-marijuana
Tumulty, Karen and Sean Sullivan. (2018). ‘That’s the model’: Republican Cory Gardner stands up to President Trump. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/powerpost/thats-the-model-cory-gardner-stands-up-to-president-trump/2018/01/05/b3b9b2b6-f17b-11e7-b3bf-ab90a706e175_story.html?utm_term=.195fd287a05f Wells, Joey. (2017). How much weed can I buy? A state-by-state guide. Leafbuyer. Retrieved from https://www.leafbuyer.com/blog/how-much-weed-can-i-buy/
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2018, all rights reserved.
This was a paper I composed for my American Politics 210 course, back in mid-2017. If I get motivated enough, I’ll do an update on significant changes between the time this was written and the recent Timbs vs. Indiana Supreme Court ruling (woot).
Though the idea has Biblical roots, civil forfeiture (or civil asset forfeiture) originated in the United States as practice of import regulation. Born from demand to seize smuggled or non-tariffed goods, civil forfeiture was a way to legalize these seizures without first prosecuting overseas property holders. Four subsequent acts of government have pushed the scope of civil forfeiture immeasurably beyond the original intentions of the Founders. I will argue that our government deliberately allowed the creation of a gaping loophole within the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, allowing for immediate and complete avoidance of due process, imposition of excessive fines, and unreasonable government search and seizure of the property of U.S. citizens.
Civil forfeiture was first ruled on by the Supreme Court in 1827, in the case of The Palmyra, 25 U.S. 1, 14(1827). The Palmyra was a private vessel under commission of the King of Spain and was believed to have been used for piracy against other U.S. ships. The Grampus, a U.S. vessel of war, captured The Palmyra, brought it to port, and the government attempted to seize the ship and all goods upon it. When the ship’s captain brought forth the argument that the Palmyra could not be forfeited until he was proven he was guilty of a crime, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that “the thing is here primarily considered the offender, or rather the offence is attached primarily to the thing” (Fuchs 2014).
This first ruling still seems somewhat bizarre – perhaps born more from convenience of prosecution than from honest and labored reflection of the Constitution. However, the scope of this decision was at the time limited to circumstances of jure belli, the laws or acts of war, or marine tort, meaning “injury, loss or damage caused to a person or their interests in a maritime setting” (Stonecypher 2008). This resulted in a narrow set of circumstances allowing for a civil, rather than a criminal, in rem seizure of property without requiring a preceding in personam criminal conviction of the property owner(s). This means the government had the right to seize property or vessels in maritime settings that were acting against U.S. law without first bringing criminal charges against the holders of the property. Civil forfeiture was most commonly used to seize smuggled goods in payment of circumvented import taxes (Keblesh 2017). These laws have been in effect since the founding of the United States (Jones 2017).
Civil forfeiture remained a narrow and uncommon practice until the 1970s, though the Prohibition-era enactment allowing for warrantless search of automobiles later influenced the scope of civil forfeiture as it stands today (Carroll 1925). The enactment of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 was the first expansion of civil forfeiture, extending the practice to the seizure of illegal drugs, drug paraphernalia, and drug manufacturing equipment (Jones 2017). The idea was to apply civil forfeiture laws to assist in crippling the manufacturing and trafficking of illicit drugs.
Though the 1970 expansion widened the umbrella of civil forfeiture, the practice did not skyrocket until the eighties. During the Reagan administration’s “tough on crime” reforms, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 was passed, albeit under varying bipartisan support. The twenty-three chapters of updated crime statutes included a broad loosening of civil forfeiture. Title III of this act and one additional piece of legislation in 1986 allowed civil forfeiture to include seizure of “money, securities, and other proceeds traceable to drug transactions… property equal in value to forfeitable property that is no longer available or accessible… cash, bank accounts, jewelry, cars, boats, airplanes, businesses, houses, and land” (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). Beyond the expansion of what and how property could be forfeited, the act also created the Department of Justice Assets Forfeiture Fund. This fund was created to deposit the proceeds of forfeitures outside of the Treasury’s General Fund and allow “equitable sharing” of profits between federal and local law enforcement agencies. This allowed local law enforcement to bypass stricter state regulation on forfeiture, with as much as 80% of any seizure’s value returning to the coffers of local law enforcement participating in the program.
Few measures were initially put in place to avoid abuse, and with the extremely high return on investment, law enforcement agencies now had incredible incentive to actively seek out civil forfeiture. Limited oversight in the spending of the proceeds meant that law enforcement could use their newly-acquired funding in just about any way they pleased. Many states began to pass legislation to reflect the federal standards of civil forfeiture. Today, there are only 9 states with strict regulation on the practice; in the other 41 states, between 50-100% of proceeds go back into the hands of local law enforcement without requiring the “adoption” of goods by the federal government (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). The laws of the other 9 states are easily circumvented by participation in the federal Equitable Sharing program. From 1985 to 1993, more than $3 billion in assets was seized by the government (Enders 1993). Those numbers have not decreased; in 2014 alone, the Assets Forfeiture Fund deposited over $5 billion – $1.5 billion more than all burglaries in the United States that same year (Ingraham 2015). The estimated total revenue of the past decade is estimated to be around $28 billion, though quite questionably, “the federal government doesn’t keep data collections on its forfeiture programs for further program study” (Ford 2017). States and the federal government are often unwilling to impose limiting statutes because it would fall on the state or law enforcement agency to close the massive budget gaps that abandoning the current practice of civil forfeiture would leave.
The financial incentive of forfeiture has become so engrained that a survey of law enforcement agencies reported that “forty percent of police executives believe civil forfeiture funds are ‘necessary as a budget supplement’” (Jones 2017). In 1990, the Attorney General announced “we must significantly increase forfeiture production to reach our budget target… Every effort must be made to increase forfeiture income” (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). Police actively seek out forfeiture, often targeting innocent civilians to ramp up department revenue, particularly small business owners, long-distance travelers, minorities, and low-income citizens who may be less likely to keep funds in bank accounts or in the process of transporting cash (O’Harrow, et al. 2014, Ford 2017). These easy targets often also lack the means to challenge forfeitures in court. The ever-increasing emphasis on seizures could mean that law enforcement agencies are putting their most deliberate efforts in taking money from citizens to supplement their budgets and neglecting other objectives that explicitly and directly impact public safety.
Tens of thousands of cases of alleged abuse have been brought to court, but civilians have their work cut out for them. Civil forfeiture allows for seizure under mere suspicion of ties to a crime; it does not require any criminal charges levied against a person or that any party be found guilty. Instead, it is a civil matter levied against the property itself (Jones 2017, Keblesh 2017). Because these cases are civil lawsuits against an inanimate object, the Supreme Court has ruled that the protections of the Constitution do not apply. The seized property is treated as an entity independent from the owner of the property and the “entity” is not awarded due process, right to an attorney, assumption of innocence, or objection to hearsay, and guilt does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt (Jones 2017, Fuchs 2014). It often takes years and tens of thousands of dollars in court and legal fees for citizens to regain seized assets; many of these cases end up as settlements with the government keeping a substantial portion of the proceeds (Sallah, et al. 2014). Small business owners have had their accounts drained due to legally-reported large cash deposits; families have had their homes seized due to alleged (and unsubstantiated) drug dealings; vehicles have been seized due to misdemeanor infractions; travelers have had their cash savings confiscated simply for travelling within “known drug corridors” (Seo 2017). Police officers regularly ask for disclosure of large amounts of cash during routine traffic stops. Almost anything can be confiscated by the loosest implications of crime, and there is very little opportunity of remittance for citizens subjected to the “stop-and-seizure” behavior of law enforcement (Sallah, et al. 2014).
The magnitude of the current practice of civil forfeiture has been the subject of widespread outcry from citizens, representatives across party lines, and by organizations such as the ACLU, Heritage Foundation, Institute for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union, and the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General (Ford 2017). Attorney General Jeff Session’s 2017 repeal of the Obama administration’s regulations on civil forfeiture opens the issue up for challenge by the Supreme Court, and Justice Clarence Thomas has made it apparent that he intends on challenging the precedents of the court (Ford 2017, Seo 2017). There are grounds to do so: there is a strong argument that the current practice of civil asset forfeiture directly violates the Fourth and Fifth Amendments. It has only been the Supreme Court’s earlier decisions that these protections do not apply to civil matters that has kept civil forfeiture a booming business for the government. Those who favor judicial restraint must recognize that the original laws of civil forfeiture were only meant to enforce customs and tax law, and that the expansion of civil forfeiture to rampant, highly unregulated, nationwide criminal enforcement was not the intention of the Founders. Judicial activism played the largest role in the expansion of civil forfeiture. Modern interpretation of the Constitution allowed for the application of warrantless searches beyond sea vessels to automobiles during the 1920s, and allowed the further expansion of the scope of civil forfeiture.
While some criminal activity is hindered by civil asset forfeiture, it has largely impacted innocent civilians. In a recent study of 100 DEA forfeiture cases by the Inspector General, only 44 of those cases had any ties to current investigations or resulted in new investigations – meaning that over half of the cases did nothing to further the inherent purpose of the Drug Enforcement Agency (Seo 2017). A report on these findings from the Inspector General reprimanded the DEA, stating “When seizure and administrative forfeitures do not ultimately advance an investigation or prosecution, law enforcement creates the appearance, and risks the reality, that it is more interested in seizing and forfeiting cash than advancing an investigation or prosecution” (Seo 2017). Reform is necessary to place protections on innocent civilians and keep the spirit of the Constitution intact.
The Fourth Amendment reads, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” Modern technology negates the necessity for warrantless automobile searches; law enforcement officers can now communicate easily and instantaneously with judges via platforms like Skype and FaceTime (Seo 2017). The staggering revenue, lack of criminal convictions or investigations, and number of contested cases of civil forfeiture is grounds for violation of the Fourth Amendment. Additionally, there are thousands of cases never contested in court due to the hardship it would impose upon the property owner (Sallah, et al. 2014).
The Fifth Amendment reads: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Supreme Court needs to address issues of double jeopardy in which citizens are subjected to both criminal and civil forfeiture proceedings and essentially punished twice for the same crime (Drug Policy Alliance 2014). The deprivation of property without the due process of law – such as the lack of criminal conviction, holding of a trial without representation, the right to testify, the right to object to hearsay, or even the right to be a party at the civil proceedings – is a glaring issue of current civil forfeiture practices (Drug Policy Alliance 2014).
Requiring criminal conviction as a
prerequisite to forfeiture, providing legal counsel for parties involved in
proceedings, imposing a greater burden of proof in civil proceedings,
redirecting funds of forfeiture out of the hands of the federal government and
state law enforcement, abolishing the Equitable Sharing loopholes and allowing
for state regulation are reforms that would massively alter the rampant malpractice
of civil asset forfeiture. The Founders put these Amendments of the
Constitution in place to safeguard the citizens from abuse by the government,
but that is inarguably what has happened within this broad and unregulated
practice. In a recent statement, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said,
“This system – where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight
and retain it for their own use – has led to egregious and well-chronicled
abuses… In the absence of this
historical practice, the Constitution presumably would require the Court to
align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines
governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation” (Seo
2017). Civil asset forfeiture as it stands is entirely unconstitutional – and I
believe the Founders would strongly agree.
Carroll v. United States. 267 U.S. 132. (1925). Retrieved from http://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/267/132/case.html
Drug Policy Alliance. (2014, Jan). Civil asset forfeiture. Retrieved from http://www.drugpolicy.org/resource/civil-asset-forfeiture
Enders, John. (1993, April). Forfeiture law casts a shadow on presumption of innocence. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1993-04-18/local/me-24209_1_forfeiture-law
Ford, Matt. (2017, April). Justice Thomas’s doubts about civil forfeiture. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/04/clarence-thomas-civil-forfeiture/521583/
Fuchs, Erin. (2014, Nov). Why cops can seize your property even if you’re innocent. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/supreme-court-ruling-on-civil-forfeiture-2014-11
Ingraham, Christopher. (2015, Nov). Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/11/23/cops-took-more-stuff-from-people-than-burglars-did-last-year/?utm_term=.081e0b322987
Jones, Rachel. (2017, May). Excessively unconstitutional: civil asset forfeiture and the excessive fines clause in Virginia. William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, 25(4), 1393-1422. Retrieved from SNHU Shapiro Library. HTML.
Keblesh, Michael J. (2017, June). Using insurance to regulate civil forfeiture. Creighton Law Review, 50(3), 455-478. Retrieved from SNHU Shapiro Library. PDF.
O’Harrow, Robert Jr., et al. (2014, Sept). They fought the law. Who won? Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/08/they-fought-the-law-who-won/?utm_term=.be9f299db84a
Sallah, Michael, et al. (2014 Sept). Stop and seize: Aggressive police take hundreds of millions of dollars from motorists not charged with crimes. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/investigative/2014/09/06/stop-and-seize/?utm_term=.cdba0f31f36a
Seo, Sarah A. (2017, June). How the fight over civil forfeiture lays bare the contradictions in modern conservatism. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/made-by-history/wp/2017/07/24/how-the-fight-over-civil-forfeiture-lays-bare-the-contradictions-in-modern-conservatism/?utm_term=.4a4e2dc949d5
Stonecypher, Lamar. (2008, Dec). Maritime law torts. Bright Hub Engineering. Retrieved from http://www.brighthubengineering.com/seafaring/21140-maritime-law-torts/
The Palmyra. 25 U.S. 1. (1827). Retrieved from https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/25/1/
Copyright E.J.R. Webster, 2017, all rights reserved.