The House I Live In
Monday 14 January
BBC 4, 10pm
America isn’t just losing the War on Drugs, it’s not even fighting the battle. That’s the slogan, and The House I Live In hits you with it again and again for two hours. Eugene Jarecki’s examination of the War on Drugs – from federal government down to individual street corners, and from the early parts of the 20th century to the present day – won the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
But all that really tells you is it’s the sort of film that riles up the US’s left-wing intelligentsia against the right-wing populists. To an international audience, that can be part of the shock. Fallout from the Phoenix and Sandy Hook shootings has given us a fresh reminder of the foothold the far right has in American policy.
The political short-termism induced by the rampant drive to get votes and hit targets is not exclusive to the conservatives, but the particular demonisation of the poor seen here is. Not that we should get too smug this side of the pond. The current talk of ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘hard-working poor’ are Victorian caricatures of the deserving and undeserving poor come around again.
In Britain, The House I Live In should be seen as a warning of how the refusal to acknowledge “the Dickensian aspect”, as The Wire put it, can block social migration and lead to criminal stagnation. We just lack the ironic backdrop of an American dream to show it up. As one talking head puts it, “In the inner city, these kids are making rational choices.”
Many of our misconceptions of what crack cocaine is and how it differs from other drugs – or who uses it, or the reasons those people turn to it – could be disproved with the minimum of research. But we – and more worryingly legislators – are not minded to do so because they pander to our particular prejudices. It’s what Nick Davies, in his excellent book of the same name, called ‘Flat Earth News’.
The problems perpetuating America’s War on Drugs are macro in scale. They are the petty prejudices and particular problems of a populist legislature. They feed into issues of race, of class and of economics. More than anything else, however, it is the problem of self regard. Of validating oneself by demonising and damning the other.
And if you’d like to see that same moral with songs, Les Mis is on.