Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Wednesday Scandalrama: Hey! That’s the mayor! And he’s SMOKING CRACK!

I was pretty young when Marion Barry was caught hittin’ the rock in a hotel room. I remember it well, though----every one of the five television channels we got back then must have showed that surveillance tape at least eleven billion times every day for six months straight. The middle-schooler me wasn’t sure what the big deal was: so some mayor somewhere smoked crack, whoop-dee-fucking-doo-dah. In my sullen teen universe, everyone was smoking crack—President Bush the First, Mikhail Gorbachev, my algebra teacher, those girls who wouldn’t laugh at my jokes, my parents when they wouldn’t let me watch “Nightmare on Elm Street”, everyone. I wasn’t really interested in the news back then, anyway. The television was there to show me Metallica videos. The newspaper was only good when there were lots of bra ads in it. The adolescent Kevin-M didn’t care if Marion Barry fired more pipe than Bethlehem Steel. As far as I was concerned, it was just some more boring, fake-assed shit my civics teacher would expect us to share our feelings about.

Looking back on it now, though, I can understand why it was such a big story. I mean, for Christ’s sake, the mayor of the capital of the United States of America was smoking crack on television. That’s real news right there. Especially since all this happened in the midst of the War on Drugs. It seems like ancient history now, but that was a time when drugs were what terrorism is now: the evillest evil ever to spring from the bowels of evil. Every television show seemed to have a “very special episode” where some straight-A student smoked a joint and found their life going to shit even before the buzz wore off. Every comic book had an issue where the guy in tights gamely steered some naive girl from the clutches of ravenous, drooling junkies. Every kid in the nation was forced to endure a hundred awful school assemblies where we were warned over and over and over again that if we ever did drugs we were in for a short life of shame and misery.

At my school, I helped put together a happy little play called “The Addict”. It was a series of short skits, all of which involved dumb-ass teenagers taking dope and then dying in horrible ways. The jock with his steroids drops a barbell on his neck. The hippies who like to swallow Quaaludes at the airport wander into someone’s propeller. The metalheads who smoke pot somehow manage to set each other on fire. It was great. The greatest part was that all the actors in it went out and got high after every rehearsal.

Still, this was the culture that Mayor Barry fired up his crack pipe in. Naturally, it was going to be a big deal. The only thing that could probably set off as big a shitstorm these days would be if they caught some politician kickin’ it with Hezbollah*. Barry’s indiscretion was tailor-made for white middle-class anxieties. The war on drugs was, all official protestations aside, largely a war on inner-city blacks, and here was the black mayor of one of America’s great black cities showing himself as the enemy on prime-time television. It gave a kind of grounding to ignorant people’s superstitions, it helped them continue to live in the fantasyland that the war on drugs demanded—this delusion that drugs are a black problem, an urban problem, a problem that can be solved by locking up as many poor people as possible. The times were such that our country’s longstanding racial hysteria had merged with its periodic drug hysteria, and Marion Barry foolishly blundered into the middle of the whole mess. No longer was he a skilled politician, an able administrator, and a fierce advocate for his city—he was Mayor Crackhead, the butt of a zillion jokes, some of which were actually pretty funny.

He deserved this, of course, but he deserves more too. You see, I don’t see drug use as a signal of someone’s essential depravity. I don’t excuse his behavior, but I don’t condemn him for it either. He is clearly a man with problems, and we can argue whether or not those problems render him unfit for public life, but I don’t hold any special animus towards him. To me, drug use is more a health issue than a moral failing. Of course, Barry was suspected of using cocaine before his arrest and he’s tested positive for using it since, so he obviously hasn’t been able and/or willing to live his life without it. Does this matter? Certainly. When someone holds a responsible position, they ought to be expected to behave responsibly. But does it mean that Marion Barry really is the indefensible wretch he was made out to be? Not at all. Perhaps his comeback campaign slogan said it best: “Marion Barry: He’s Not Perfect, But He’s Perfect For D.C.”

* Interesting tidbit: early in his political career, Barry was shot in the chest during an altercation with radical Muslim terrorists who were attempting to take over Washington D.C.’s municipal builidng. Strange world we live in.