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On "Crack Pipe" Panic, Democrats Try to Fact Check Their Way Out of Important Ideological Battle
Smoking kits—yes, with “pipes”—are an essential element of preventing disease transmission and getting those with substance issues in touch with life-saving services. Democrats should say so.
I don’t recall a lot from my evangelical Christian education as a youth, but I do remember distinctly, and think about a lot, the parable of the the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew: 25. You’ve probably heard it—it’s a bit cliché. But I will post the whole of it anyway:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King [Jesus] will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, "I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
I don’t reference this to be mawkish or try to lend faux gravitas to this post. I mention it because when I think about the rapid growth of Christianity, how it was embraced by elites and peasants alike (albeit with centuries of violent corrosion), I think this parable is one of the greatest cult recruiting tools ever. It says to the poorest of the poor, the sick, the weak, the least of these, not only are you relevant and valuable in God’s eyes, the manner in which your master or ruler or neighbor treats you is paramount to God’s judgment. It is the key, central thing.
As a general rule, people assume how someone treats others in their proximity they don’t particularly need—suburbanite workers, a random waiter, street beggars—is how they will, when the chips are down, treat them. This is why the verse in Matthew is so powerful. Just about everyone can envision themselves falling, being cast out, broken, destitute, down on their luck. If and when this happens, what will my friends do for me? What will my religious cohorts do for me? What will my God do for me?
There’s little reason to believe electoral politics doesn’t operate under a similar framework. I am more likely to knock doors, vote, and donate to a candidate who views my value—and substance of the politics that matter to me—not as transactional and precarious, but as solidaristic. Voting, at its core, is a romantic enterprise. The odds of a single vote being dispositive to an election is astronomical, in the one in many trillions. We don’t vote, or register votes, or tell our friends to vote, or support a candidate, or fundraise for pragmatic reasons. We do it, ultimately, because we believe in things: abortion rights, animal welfare, more humane immigration, voting rights, ending wars. We do it, ultimately, because we believe in a candidate: that they may not be perfect, but at the end of the day they will go to the mat for us.
As a general rule, Democrats do the opposite. They look at polls, namely polls of wealthier suburban voters, and if a particular issue is deemed sufficiently toxic for short-term political needs, they either ignore it, punt, or—more often than not—just throw it under the bus. Nowhere is this mode of anti-politics more apparent than when Fox News gins up a racist panic. Democrats embraced “Tough on Crime” policies when murder rates ticked up last year. Under Obama they voted to end ACORN after a fake far-right dust up and fired Shirley Sherrod after an equally made up non-scandal. And now this week, with the “crack pipe” panic Democrats are trying to weasel out of.
After the Washington Free Beacon, a right-wing tabloid, noted a $30 million Health and Human Services harm reduction program would include “smoking kits,” this kicked off a multi-day, viral right-wing smear about Biden “handing out free crack pipes.” The White House attempted to get out of the scandal by insisting the kits they set funds aside for didn’t explicitly involve “pipes,” but basically no one believes this. Pipes are almost always part of smoking kits—as many fact checkers have noted—and they are so for good reason. Glass pipes can crack and cut lips, which increases disease transmission and infections. Additionally, smoking certain drugs is almost always preferable to needle consumption, and providing more drug tools increases interactions with health workers. In other words, on substance, the policy—virtually every public health expert agrees—is totally standard and worth defending.
But, per usual, Democrats fold, placate, try to dampen the outrage cycle, and move on. What, in the short term, seems to make sense and help midterm or presidential elections, in the long term breeds cynicism and mistrust among their base, and is one of the—if not the—drivers of the United States' uniquely low voter turnout. Ideology, I would submit, is simply pragmatism over a longer time table. The average young and modestly idealistic voter asks, “If the Democrats will sell out this cause, if they will toss immigration activists, anti-Yemen war activists, and harm reduction activists under the bus so quickly, what will they do to what’s important to me? Why should I show up? Why should I believe?”
There are exceptions, to be fair, like then-President Obama’s relatively courageous defense of the so-called “9/11 mosque” in 2010. But these are rare and far between. All too often there’s no sense to Democratic decision makers—increasingly composed of corporate lawyers, P.R. flacks, and other professions not known for deep ideological commitments—that anything is sacred, to use another religious term. Though there’s much I’ve come to disagree with him about in recent years, Chris Hedges, himself a man of the cloth, writes convincingly about the abandonment of the sacred from public life—the liberal class’s failure to establish and defend certain values and populations as sacred, as nonnegotiable. Neoliberalism, in its insatiable pursuit to consume and commodify everything, renders the sacred obsolete: Everything can be bargained with, negotiated. Everything is subject to abandonment if it helps some meta electoral pursuit. Unqualified solidarity for populations with little political upside isn’t just not an option, it’s viewed as suspect, unserious, childish, or the dreaded “purity politics.”
Clearly, a team of Biden advisors met in some over-lit room in the White House, scrolled through social media and right-wing outlets, and determined that this fight, on this day, wasn’t worth it. They tried to squirm out of the debate on a technicality, working backwards from what chyron or headline would, in their minds, play poorly in Fairfax County, Virginia. They weren’t going to explicitly abandon harm reduction as such, just by heavy implication and definition, creating a logical pretzel setting it up to fail later: “Pipes”—despite being included in almost every other smoking kit in multiple countries—were sinister and bad, but clean needles were good health policy. What?
At best, they hoped no one noticed their defense was incoherent, and the issue would just blow over. But it likely won’t. The topic of what should and shouldn’t be included as part of harm reduction plans, and drug kits, can’t be lawyered out of. Now, Republicans have announced a stunt bill, The CRACK Act, to effectively Hyde Amendment all “drug paraphernalia,” banning all federal funding for anything that could be construed as assisting the consumption of drugs—not just “crack pipes.” Democrats will thus be made to answer for this, and will, confusingly, have to explain why they don’t support pipes but everything else that helps people smoke drugs. It’s nonsensical, but this is what happens when policy is driven by breathless headlines rather than coherent principles.
Other than perhaps the incarcerated, there is no population in this country more in keeping with the parable of the Sheep and the Goats than those who will need these harm reduction services. Those who stand to benefit from harm reduction tool kits, by definition, have no money, no voice, and very little power. This is who Jesus was calling out to, recruiting, trying to marshal to join him. Not just those at the bottom rung, those left for dead by society, but those who know people who are or who could envision themselves in similar circumstances.
What does it say to these millions of people, who watch how quickly Democrats folded on “crack pipes,” that basic science-driven policy is not worth a news cycle of principled defense? That humane, proven harm reduction practices can be jettisoned at the slightest whiff of bad PR? What if Democrats actually stood up for these powerless constituents, not despite a lack of political upside but precisely because of it? What would it say to everyone else? What if we are nice to the waiter or subordinate not only because it was the right thing to do, but because it showed to everyone in our proximity that we will fight for them, too, if they find themselves not immediately useful to us? What if, for once, Democrats chose to battle not for what was popular or polled well, but for the least of these, not only because it was morally correct, but because, perhaps in the long run, expanding the circle of solidarity actually helped win elections.