Seized as we are by dysfunction in our political and social institutions, it might well be time to cut our losses. We must fix certain problems—health care, the environment, education—but fifty years is long enough for the War on Drugs. And America lost. Of course America lost. The fighting is the loss.
As long as we have huge systemic flaws in treating mental and physical illness, millions of people will turn to drugs. And even if we ended the war today, our collective public outlays in maintaining the war and carceral system that runs it would keep us in the red for decades, lifetimes to come.
We’re hooked on the War on Drugs. From the piss-test makers to overseas DEA offices to the for-profit prison systems, the Drug War isn’t just a policy: it’s a vast legal apparatus that has turbo-charged the very profitable modern American police state. And with the crescendo of protests in every state in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the entire American carceral system is under examination—including the arts and entertainments that draw on it.
Of course, writers and artists didn’t create the War on Drugs or the police state, but they are responsible for the bad, stupid stories that have bolstered it. Many of these stories have been designed to mystify, to lie about what cops do and justify what they’re for, to soften images and thwart critique. It’s not like the police state can just be ignored, though. Closing our eyes won’t make it go away. The counters of our carceral geography need more mapping, not less. Yes, fiction is made-up, but it does have an explicit moral duty to interrogate the world. The problem for all of us—writers, readers, interested parties—is that sussing out narrative stances is no simple task, and figuring out their effects is even harder.
Narrative art—whether on the page, stage, or screen—reflects its era, but that’s not a one-to-one process. Like history, art is messy. Which is why pro-cop propaganda like the Dragnet radio and TV series was soon rivaled by the adaptation of Earl Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series. While Dragnet’s Joe Friday was breaking up cliched crime rings, Mason was exposing the Los Angeles District Attorney as incompetent every week. So many times DA Burger, and by extension the police, were publicly clowned by Mason that people had to ask: has anyone else ever been so bad at their job? Burger was The Man, a representative and enforcer of lawful order, and he lost hundreds of cases, which meant that the cops arrested hundreds of innocent people. In the world of Perry Mason, the system failed time and time again. Gardner’s 1930s pulp fiction ultimately became a weekly demonstration of the utter incompetence of the 1950s legal system and the buffoonery of the people implementing it.
It’s funny to think about, fact-based justice dunking on the police and prosecutors in each episode and book, with Mason as a kind of one-man Innocence Project (assisted by Paul and Della, of course). Except it’s not that funny. See, DA Burger never lost his job. The voters kept reelecting him. For him there were no consequences, as there weren’t for the LAPD and its criminally deficient detectives—in Mason-land or 1950s Los Angeles. Maybe that’s the real critique in Perry Mason. Week after week and book after book, Lieutenant Tragg keeps arresting the wrong people and Burger keeps taking them to trial. If you’re a Mason client, yes, the truth will out and you’ll be freed, but if not—if you’re outside of the frame—you’re screwed. And the system just rolls on.
While the Mason/Dragnet era is often misremembered as a time of Officer Friendlies walking the beat and serving up safety and apple pie to happy citizens, it was also a time of noir and the mainstreaming of science fiction, works that were often so radical that they were straight-up ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards). The Twilight Zone’s “Shadow Play” episode (set on death row) or a film like Touch of Evil (on the Mexican-American border) don’t give their audiences the easy justice of Perry Mason, either. Right rarely wins out in noir-ish drama, and order is often presented as a kind of masked void, a dark emptiness ready to swallow up the characters.
And by the 1960s, with the counterculture in righteous swing, the focus shifted to the outlaws. Bonnie & Clyde, The Italian Job, and the adaptations of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers were in sync with anti-authoritarian, chaotic cultural moment. More nuanced portrayals of crime and punishment, like Ed McBain’s “87th Precinct” novels, would have to wait until the anti-drug 1980s, when Hill Street Blues would be a hit.
By the 1970s, Sidney Lumet’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon would typify a more developed Boomer critique of American crime and punishment, exploring the underlying structures of poverty and oppression in their relationship to the police. They’d also rely on breakout performances—in both cases, Al Pacino’s kinetic portrayals of cop and bank robber. His rich, conflicted, and over-the-top acting would become a necessary part of depicting American law and order.
Indeed, in that 1970s theater right next door, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry was just as iconic and excessive in taking out drugged-out hippy sadists—only in service of a character who was downright revanchist in his effort to make San Francisco safe again. And as the American War on Drugs intensified, it became less clear what our American cop stories’ inherent critiques in fact were. What else are we to make of the continued ubiquity of Pacino’s Scarface poster?
But then, this has been a problem since the War on Drugs, an inherent tension between a real (if nasty) depiction of the underworld and the allure of that depiction. Whereas Miami Vice featured a racially-mixed detective partnership of Crockett and Tubbs (like In the Heat of the Night), it also traded pretty heavily on South American drug lord devils—depictions that certainly helped increase Reagan’s defense budget. Conversely, Sara Paretsky private investigator V.I. Warshawski was an immigrant and opera singer who would always take on her client’s cases pro bono so long as the suspect was powerful and white (collar), but her class-consciousness didn’t deliver the chainsaw-in-the-bathroom moments that War on Drugs stories love to tell.
By the 1990s and 2000s, NYPD Blue and The Shield were the dark and gritty and realistic synthesis of everything before. Critical if not downright cynical about the justice system, they also made cops seem as inevitable as a sunset. In exploring the moral hazards of simply being a cop, they embellished them as hard, naughty, and not to be fucked with…which surely did little to diminish real-world abuses.
The fact is, the line between entertainment that tells the truth about power and entertainment that makes that power more powerful has always been very hard to judge. Take James Ellroy. Few writers have explored the systematic, political nature of urban police violence in more detail. But . . . you could argue that his books are, like his characters, reactionary, brutal, and racist. And yet . . . you could also argue that they show us things about our history and our present that many people ignored then and ignore now. What about Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day? What in it is critique and what is propaganda? Does its insight into corruption get lost in the swirling charisma of Denzel Washington’s acting? Do performances like that actually help lodge the bad-apple trope in our brains? What does it mean when the pervasive corruption in Chinatown or the charismatic outlawry in Bonnie & Clyde become cultural gestures that, by the time of Reagan, turn into smart-ass John McClane in Die Hard or the cynical dystopia of RoboCop? Or worse, some bullshit like Turner and Hooch?
Well obviously, nothing great—certainly not for art, and probably not for society either.
But the thing is, the best narrative art doesn’t provide answers. That’s not how it works. Stories explore and even complicate problems. Some of the finest books, movies and tv shows centered on our very flawed system of justice have done this (storytelling) expertly. Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down the Rabbit Hole. Roberto Saviano’s Gamorra and Zero Zero Zero. 2019’s extension of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. 2020’s reboot of Perry Mason, which raises the narrative stakes by making the cops corrupt and the self-serving DA not just adversarial but actively opposed to a just outcome.
These stories show us characters we might not like, situations we might not wish on anyone, and yet give us the hope that their problems will be overcome. But they aren’t nonfiction or policy proposals. Stories are meant to depict us and our troubles, deepen our understanding of the particular and specific. And if they don’t provide workable solutions for the real world, they offer, through the miracles of plot and catharsis, the sense that the insurmountability of our problems is the greatest lie of all.
Smith Henderson is the author of FOURTH OF JULY CREEK and lives in Montana.
Jon Marc Smith lives in San Marcos, Texas, and teaches English at Texas State University.