Symbolic Crusades

Anxious Bench | 8/20/2018 | Staff
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Many years ago, somewhere in the early Jurassic era, I taught in a criminal justice department. This was a very valuable experience, in giving me the opportunity to learn skills and insights that can very usefully be applied to understanding history, and especially in its religious forms. Some of these approaches have been on my mind recently as I look at debates over immigration and nativism, particularly in Europe.

Issues of drugs and drug policy have long been of prime interest to scholars of criminology and criminal justice. The questions were obvious enough. There was no natural linkage between the harmfulness of a substance, as it might be assessed objectively, and the severity with which it was penalized by law. At the time – the 1980s, say – tobacco was thoroughly tolerated, while marijuana use could land you in prison. It was not immediately obvious why a particular substance posed a problem, and if it did, why it should be met with one particular response rather than another – by harsh penalties rather than medical treatment. So what shaped laws and official policies? Obviously, questions of race, class, and generational conflict all played their part.

Landmark - Contribution - Debates - Sociologist - Joseph

One landmark contribution to these debates came from the eminent sociologist Joseph Gusfield, who in 1963 published the book Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement. (Gusfield made plenty of other contributions, especially The Culture of Public Problems, 1981, but here let me focus on this early book). He traced the history of Temperance from nineteenth century origins to its triumph in Prohibition, and stressed that the laws must not be understood primarily as a rational response to a problem. Rather, they reflected questions of status and power. In the early nineteenth century, American Protestants became more likely than Catholics to reject alcohol use. As...
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