We sat down with Travis Linnemann, a professor of sociology at Kansas State University and a distinguished cultural critic, to discuss his provocative research into the supposed meth epidemic and the ongoing humanitarian disaster of policing in the United States.
Hard Crackers: Your first book Meth Wars (NYU Press, 2016) deals with the role of methamphetamine in American culture. In particular, you look at laws and law enforcement strategies, but also cultural products like the TV show Breaking Bad. Tell us a little bit about the approach of analyzing these sources side by side.
Travis Linnemann: It’s hard to disentangle them. I learned fairly quickly that they play off one another, they’re mutually constitutive of one another. What you see on TV, whether it be Breaking Bad or the nightly news, you will hear parroted by cops, probation officers, and judges. It’s hard to nail down the origin point for a lot of that ideology, and I don’t think I necessarily wanted to. I was more interested in seeing how these ideas circulate, and trying to reckon with the political work they do on everyday life.
Meth Wars was driven by the general question: Mass imprisonment is this totalizing project in American social life, so how does that manifest in little small towns in rural Kansas, like where I grew up and where I used to live and work? It doesn’t materialize in the way that perhaps, Michelle Alexander might say, but it certainly materializes! Looking at the specificities of these rural places, and their cultural texture, gives you an entrée into a particular way mass incarceration unfolds, and how it is reproduced every day.
HC: So what does meth tell us about the United States?
TL: I use this idea of a “death wish,” the drug war being a death wish, that constantly recycles a different sort of enemy population associated with particular drugs. So it’s not necessarily a “moral panic,” but more of a sigil to organize police, organize courts, organize the tremendous amount of money that’s behind the massive carceral apparatus. We can see it just over and over again, with different drugs rising as the vehicle or instrument to criminalize people, to push new policies into new territories, and to get really punitive political work done. So that’s how I understand meth. It’s part of the war on drugs, which is always a low intensity class war meant to articulate and organize a whole host of punitive energies and disown underlying anxieties about the fragmentation of social life.
HC: And you had a lot of personal experience with the meth panic.
TL: I am a slow learner. I was working in a beef packing plant between college semesters. It was back-breaking work, too hard for me. A friend gave me a way out: a job working in a group home taking “children in need of care” (state custody) on activities, the swimming pool, the park and so on. It’s still the best job I’ve ever had. It taught me a lot about people and the world. Fast forward fifteen years and I was “working with people” but in “community corrections,” “intensive probation” in the heart of “methland” as some would have it. That’s never what I imagined I’d do with my young life, and it took me some time to figure out where I fit into it, despite my best intentions. I’d also never have imagined I’d be working as a professor, but that work, which I finally left behind, led to this, again, despite my best intentions. But thankfully I’ve run into a lot of writing that’s helped me make better sense of the world.
So when I was working “in the field” I heard a whole lot about how meth was the next big thing, how it was something that we needed to be worried about, and be on guard for. I didn’t see it. I even pulled the state’s own data: arrest statistics, drug test trends. The data didn’t support the myth, and of course, they knew what they were doing. It was quite easy to see this was all propaganda. I started tracing its effects, and seeing how meth and similar threats are really a good way for states to access federal dollars.
HC: Something that we really loved about Meth Wars is how you contrast this discourse coming from the cops, the federal government, television shows, and anti-drug campaigns, with your own experiences in places that were supposedly ravaged by meth.
TL: The ideology and the politics of the drug war are so damned effective that people don’t even stop and question it, and tend to believe what they’re told and not what they see. We hear it on the television, we hear coming from important people, that something like meth is the next problem, and it materializes like a ghost. Our best evidence doesn’t really matter. In the end, I discovered meth didn’t necessarily even have anything to do with meth. It was a believable artifice to put over the situation in a particular sort of location.
For instance, I had people tell me in plain language: “Crack’s not a problem here. We don’t have black people. This is a small town in rural Kansas. So crack’s not a problem. But meth! We got all these poor whites. Meth is our problem.” And people would say this, despite not having actually any meth problems to speak of, or anything that they could point to, to show that there was actually a meth problem. They did have poor people that maybe seemed threatening, or fit a general stereotype, and the meth trope worked nicely to help people understand them. Never mind that meth has been sold under the brand name Desoxyn for seventy years!
HC: So you argue that meth is a convenient stand-in for a whole host of social problems that are far more difficult to explain than simply attributing them to the effect of one particular drug.
TL: Yes, absolutely so. I think you can really see that in the well-known “meth mouth” trope.
Dentists and medical doctors will contest that it’s not as simple as: “You do meth, your teeth rot out.” Naomi Murakawa was very early in upending this trope. Nevertheless, it persists, and people believe it and put it to work. So when they see somebody with bad teeth they don’t class disparities, they don’t see somebody who has lived hard and worked hard, and had poor health, bad diet, or lack of insurance. They see meth. So there’s so many other things that can go on in somebody’s life that would contribute to this visible marker. But all of that is erased by the trope of the meth mouth. It’s Cesare Lombroso born anew.
HC: You have a new book that deals with two of our favorite topics here at Hard Crackers: the misdeeds of the American cops, and the genre of horror. It’s called The Horror of Police (University of Minnesota Press, 2022). How, by your estimation, are these things related?
TL: There’s a basic reading: every day we’re bombarded by horror stories about the police. We don’t have to look very hard to find something that would rise to the level of most people’s understanding of horror. But what I try to argue in the book is that American police reveal various other aspects of what we might consider horror. They do a piss poor job of keeping people safe. Oftentimes they’re a greater threat than anything else a person might encounter. They don’t prevent crime.
Ultimately, though, I was trying to get at the idea that the police apparatus is just one thing that we as a society erect as an avenue towards security, which remains evasive. So all the horrible things that we witness the police doing, their failures, their inability to do what we expect them to do — these things are often ignored, because enough people believe that the cops are a means to security in an insecure world. So we ignore or forgive their sins, lest we face this greater horror of insecurity — the reality of things that ultimately can’t be secured, things that are immovable in our lives, our own frailty, our mortality, which I guess would be the ultimate form of insecurity that police relate to directly. Our trust in the police is a half measure that we clutch to in the dark at night and hope that maybe it’ll work. And thanks to it, we have to put up with all the shit that they do that’s horrendous.
HC: That leads to one of the most interesting parts of the book, when you talk about these recurrent images of police violence that we get through smartphone footage and bodycam footage. You compare these moments, when we are confronted with the violent nature of the police, to the early moments in a horror film, when the protagonist first glimpses evidence of a terrifying world that exists just beneath the surface of the known one. As you point out, the narrative tension in the opening act of many horror films revolves around a protagonist being disbelieved by others, or even forced to disbelieve themselves: “Did I really see what I saw?” Relating this popular narrative device to images of police violence, you pose the question: “What if we really saw what we saw?”
TL: Right. I think we can relate that to the idea of the bad apple or the bad case. Police defenders are constantly telling us how these incidents wouldn’t happen if we just had better policy, better equipment, more or different types of police. “This is only a one-off situation. Trust us that this is not representative.” Ultimately, though, in the horror trope we are discussing, the protagonist realizes that they actually did see what they saw. In this case, the same sequence applies, except the monster is actually the police. It is at least one of many monsters, and it’s a monster that we’ve created, and licensed to fight these other monsters that stand in for insecurity.
HC: A related argument you make, which can be traced back to Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” is that something exists at the center of law enforcement that is either extra-legal or outright illegal. You discuss this in a very clever way, through a discussion of the first season of HBO’s True Detective.
TL: That’s basically how I got on this topic. So, disclaimer: I’m not an authority on horror. I don’t even know if I’m necessarily much of a horror fan. But my interest was piqued by the first season of True Detective. I was reading Benjamin, along with Mark Neocleous’s engagement with Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, and Thomas Hobbes. Mark’s assertion is that not only do we license the police as monster fighters, but we know that they themselves are monsters, and they even tell us constantly! So while I’m reading all this, I hear Matthew McConaughey say: “Of course I’m dangerous, I’m police. I can do terrible things to people with impunity.”
Great cinematic line, very effective. But you don’t have to work very hard to hear real cops say this. This is one of their mantras, harkening back to Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth! You need me on that wall!” That sort of thing. Real cops often tell us: if you knew how the world really worked, then you wouldn’t complain so goddamn much, and you’d know you should be thankful for your life, that we grant you. There’s that often misattributed quote about how people sleep safely in their bed, because of rough men standing ready to do whatever whatever. The police tell us they are the debt that must be paid so that we can live the lives we choose.
So with True Detective, even though I like the show, my interest came from how the show, whether it meant to or not, clearly displays some of these ideas about the open violence of police, and how it’s understood, at least tacitly, as the very heart of liberal order.
HC: You demonstrate well how these cultural artifacts, like True Detective and especially The Wire, which purport to offer a nuanced or critical view of American policing, end up, perhaps against the best wishes of their creators, actually endorsing police violence.
TL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. There’s the famous McNullty quote from The Wire wire where he calls himself “natural police,” and he says there’s only a few people in the Baltimore Police Department who have the will to do what needs to be done. Natural police. But for me, maybe the best example of that is Bad Lieutenant. The character is not a man, he’s just a cop: “the Lieutenant.” And I don’t suppose you could create a worse cop than Harvey Keitel’s character. Yet, at the end of the day, he does what we are supposed to think cops do. He chases down the bad guys, and brings justice for this very sanctified, pitiable victim, a Catholic nun. My reading of that film is no matter how bad the cop may be, they nevertheless stand on the right side of the rule of law. Their violence is always just, regardless of who gets hurt.
HC: Meanwhile, if you subtract the police procedural elements from Bad Lieutenant, it would probably be a pretty realistic view of the NYPD.
TL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I assume you could trace any facet of that guy’s character and find some real world examples.
HC: Another film that you analyze in a really interesting way is the Paul Verhoeven classic Robocop. You begin by saying that there’s a common defense of the police, that we often hear from the cops and their admirers, that they are “just doing their jobs.” That’s supposed to exonerate them. But in your discussion of Robocop, you turn that formulation on its head and say: What if cops “just doing their job” is the problem?
TL: We can see that really well with Robocop, who is, like all cybernetic machines, bound by code to do the job a certain way. So I played around with the idea of the police being assembled like a machine, where they are absolutely bound to a certain sort of set of tasks. And their main task simply boils down to the administration of violence.
I also focused on Robocop because I wanted to find some vehicle to critique the common critique of “police militarization,” which either doesn’t go far enough, in the best case, or amounts to an insidiously pro-police narrative in the worst, by sanctioning non-militarized policing. So Robocop, as a human turned machine, allows us to think through what exactly is taking over, as a human turns into a machine, or as a person turns into a cop. Underlying it all is this primary directive of legal lethal violence in the service of the racist liberal-capitalist social order. So keeping that in mind, the ordinary critique of police militarization becomes unnecessary. We just need to keep an eye on the underlying kind of commands and codes of the police. All of them should be an object or a target for critique: militarized cop, non-militarized cop. All that is part of the same architecture.
HC: Late in the book you pose a question that’s very compelling: “Why must we collectively cling to what the police offer, when they offer very little?” Your answer seems to be, to some extent, that we as a society are unwilling to let go of the world that the police uphold. But more interestingly, you add that we are also unable to shed our own denial of the unsafety and insecurity at the core of human life, and ultimately, cannot let go of our denial of our own mortality.
TL: At the end of Meth Wars I get to the same conclusion, and quote James Baldwin from The Fire Next Time: “Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.” It is a call for radical solidarity along all kinds of different lines, as human beings, but first and foremost, as finite and mortal.
To accept that the movie doesn’t end the way we hope it’s going to end might be a starting place, if we are going to let go of some of these things that we know not only don’t work, but are actually murderous and bloody. This would be to give up on the dream of a certain type of security, because security is illusory and never complete. It’s always something that’s unfulfilled, particularly if we’re talking about more existential questions. But even just everyday security is not something that can be accomplished absolutely. The police know that, and they play upon it. They get us to dance very well by playing on our insecurities and our desires for security.
HC: Right. When the police demonstrate the presence of what they say is safety, they say it’s evidence for more police. And when they demonstrate the presence of what they say is unsafety, that’s also evidence for more police.
TL: Exactly. Everything becomes evidence for more police. And as others have already noted, the challenge, faced by even the most radical police critics, is how to reject this, and not live our lives organized by the violence of police power, whether or not it comes in the form of the boys in blue.