Sam Quinones On Addiction And Bouncing Back

He's one of the best reporters covering the surge of opioids, meth, and fentanyl in the 21st century.

  
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Sam, the author of Dreamland, is out with another book about the explosion of hard and dangerous drugs, The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth. His reporting was an indispensable part of my big magazine piece on the opioid crisis, and we go into great detail on the pod.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app,” which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For two clips of my conversation with Sam — on the rise of a new sinister meth, and on the media silence over gays and meth  — head over to our YouTube page.

Meanwhile, many readers keep the debate going on critical race theory in the wake of the Virginia elections. The first:

I agree with you on a lot on CRT, and I agree that the Arlington County materials one of your readers linked to is deeply problematic. We’ve got a little blond 12-year-old girl in school right now who was recently singled out by a really terrible teacher who basically demonized her as representative of the wrongs perpetrated by white people throughout history. We’re planning to talk to the teacher and maybe the school and will be having some out-of-school discussions with our kids.

So suffice it to say on this issue, I’m with Youngkin. However, I was surprised to see you say you’d vote for him if you were in Virginia. Do you consider yourself a one-issue voter? Youngkin certainly talked a more moderate talk, which I’d love to see become fashionable in the GOP, and I’d say he has the better of the education argument. 

But then there’s his waffling on Jan 6 and voter integrity — and commitment to a democratic society is pretty foundational. There’s Covid — I don’t want to get rid of mask mandates in schools. Do I even need to say this: Covid is NOT a fringe issue. Then there’s climate change, which is kind of a big deal too. Youngkin isn’t sure if humans play any role in global warming, and he warned that a transition to renewables will result in “blackouts and brownouts and an unreliable grid.” As for local issues, historically it’s been really hard to get Republican candidates to support desperately needed money for roads in northern Virginia.

The response to each of those can’t be “but CRT!” I don’t see how you weigh all that and come out for Youngkin.

Sometimes, you vote as a protest to make sure your voice is heard on a particular topic. I do see CRT as a foundational issue for a liberal democracy — and in a governor’s race, it would be my core issue. CRT’s premises and arguments are so designed to dismantle our entire constitution and way of life, it becomes a litmus test in my mind.

Another reader prods me further:

Unexplored in your column “The Woke Meet Their Match: Parents” is what role parents should actually play in public school education. Let’s look at it this way: public schools are going to continue to assign reading that troubles one constituency or another. Hardcore CRT is going to tick off many parents, and sexually explicit content (like in “Beloved”) will cause at least some parents to shield their children. On the other end of the spectrum, some parents believe history textbooks whitewash the most painful parts of our history.

My point is a mundane one: you can’t please everyone. What, then, is the solution?  Should parents be able to opt a 12th grader out of certain books? Should school boards simply water down curriculum so that no student reads any material that challenges their sensibilities? Should schools send parents mailers warning them of troubling content? Who decides what content is troubling?

In short: you implied that you think parents should have some sort of involvement. But what does that mean?

I think parents should be able to express their concerns, and teachers should reasonably accommodate them in egregious cases. If they don’t, parents need to elect better school boards, or recall members, as is happening in San Francisco of all places. But no, I don’t want to give parents a veto over anything their kid studies.

A sharp dissent from a public school administrator in NYC:

I agree with you about the far left’s overreach on matters of race, and that it dashed the Dems’ chance at winning the gubernatorial race, but, when it comes to what’s being taught in schools, with respect, you don’t know what you’re talking about (and even sound — dear Lord forgive me — a little like Tucker Carlson). You wrote that students are “being taught in a school system now thoroughly committed to the ideology and worldview of CRT, by teachers who have been marinated in it, and whose unions have championed it” — and then cherry pick examples to support these overgeneralized claims. 

First, unions have no say in what gets taught in schools. None. Whom they invite to their conferences (that no one goes to or cares about) has zero bearing on what students learn in their 2nd period Geometry class. Randi Weingarten and the AFT could invite Lucifer himself to give a keynote and it wouldn’t matter one jot. 

Two, there are 3.5 million public school teachers in the U.S. and 270,000 administrators. Where, and when, did all of us become indoctrinated into the “worldview of CRT”? Ed schools? Our famously ineffective “professional development” sessions? The staff lounge?? 

While there are, of course, exceptions, American public schools are not exactly known for their innovation, and teachers are notorious for their reluctance to adopt new ideas. That explains why so many elementary schools, after decades, still teach reading using methods wholly unsupported by the latest evidence-based science in reading instruction. It’s why every state mostly teaches a curriculum that has not changed since electricity was invented and which has not scaled or aged well to serve many students’ needs (or society’s). And it’s also why it only takes teachers about three years on the job before they start recycling units and lesson plans from the year before.

Schools and classrooms are such indescribably dynamic ecosystems with so many factors beyond our control that when we find a system that works for most students most of the time, we dig our heels in deep and use it (until a global pandemic shakes things up, and even then). Add to that the vested interests of the myriad stakeholders — teachers, unions, parents, politicians, education schools, policy makers, students — and the staggering amount of tax dollars we funnel into our districts, and you’ve got a slow, lumbering machine that makes an aircraft carrier look like a cigarette boat. 

And lastly, even if it were true that most teachers were CRT acolytes, as you fear, where, exactly, would this odious instruction be taking place? Gym? Band? AP Bio? Please. Schools — and school districts — are food courts, not Michelin-starred restaurants. They’re not nearly as coherent as you fear. So calm down, dude.

This next reader had a much difference experience:

A high school in San Francisco called me in to fill a one-year gig teaching geometry. I entered what I thought would be an interview like many I’d had in the past. Instead, it was a whole ambush. The three individuals sat facing me and slid a piece of paper over with about 12 questions on it. They circled four and took turns reading them aloud. No questions about me, my education, my previous experience. What they really wanted to know was how I would make sure that students of all races succeeded, how I would implement CRT into the curriculum, and how I could make the instruction of math anti-racist.

From another teacher:

I recently graduated with my Masters in Teaching, and I got two years of an exclusively CRT-based curriculum where learning great teaching strategies was prioritized far behind mastering the principles of anti-racism. Although some on the Left rightly claim that the idea of middle-school students reading Robin diAngelo is ridiculous, this is a motte-and-bailey fallacy. 

In my MAT program, we learned about how the racial education gap is due exclusively to white racism, and we did have to read DiAngelo, with no opposing perspectives. We learned about the evils of cutting government spending without addressing the mind-boggling amount of money that is absolutely wasted by administrative bloat and stupid, briefly-lived fad technologies.

I was on the left before starting graduate school, but my experience there pushed me way into the center because I could see how wasteful, baseless, and hypocritical so many of the left’s policies on education were and how entrenched CRT is in all things education. I saw a lot of bright, reasonable minds turn to anti-racist fanaticism because of the sheer social pressure against speaking up against the predominant perspective. 

As you say, there is simply no way that this kind of thing doesn’t trickle-down to students. We were told not to grade with red pens, to ignore certain grammar errors in favor of allowing room for cultural language expression, pressured to raise grades, and shamed for having too many failing students when the students themselves couldn’t even be bothered to show up to class, in part because they knew there would be no consequences. Kids may not be learning CRT explicitly, but they absolutely suffer the consequences of its pervasiveness in the school system. 


Looking back at last week’s episode with Ann Coulter, we predictably pissed off a lot of listeners. But not all:

I was surprised, pleasantly, to listen to Ann Coulter speaking out of her onscreen character. I was prepared to be forced to end the podcast early amidst anger and frustration listening to her, but instead I found it an entirely satisfying experience. 

From another listener who “enjoyed this interview”:

You challenged Ann Coulter in an engaging and — dare I say it — gentle way, which made for a real conversation and brought out some likable qualities in Ann. Not easy to do. 

Although it seems a bit quixotic, and isn’t enough to allow anyone to let their guard down, I think Ann’s prediction about Trump fading away, like Sarah Palin, has some merit. Reminds me that sometimes things aren’t resolved or transformed in sharp, definitive battles but in a slow crumbling, and turning of attention.

Another listener thinks I should have been less gentle:

Dude. Dude. DUDE! I’ve been with you since the early early days of the Dish. That interview with Ann Coulter was the most impotent one you’ve had since launching the podcast. There are too many examples of how you just let her spew unchecked nonsense: on parental leave, the transactions costs of diversity, the size of the federal work force, etc. Come on. Frustrating. I wanted more. She didn’t defend any of her positions. None. And you didn’t push her. At all. You didn’t even try.

Maybe I was too soft. But I was not trying to have a showdown, but a conversation. Another listener isn’t a fan of Coulter but liked the episode:

Thank you for a great interview with Ann Coulter. As someone who shares most of her views, I followed her work closely for years. However, she has two intolerable flaws that led me to largely tune her out.

The first is her increasingly tiresome shtick. Her tight dresses, coquettish laugh, hair toss, and outrageously offensive statements perfectly timed to coincide with the release of her books all served to increase her publicity and make her extremely wealthy. I certainly don’t begrudge anyone their wealth and fame, but one would think that at some point, she would start to prioritize the issues she is passionate about and try to make the progress on them that she is capable of, in light of her undeniable brilliance.

For example, I recall that in the run-up to the 2008 election, it seemed clear that the nominees would be McCain and Clinton. Ann announced to anyone who would listen that she would not only vote for Hillary, but even campaign for her. Among many other issues, there were certain to be several Supreme Court appointments in the coming years that could affect abortion jurisprudence. The late Mike Adams wrote at the time that Ann cared more about selling books than saving babies. Harsh, but it is hard to argue with that.

Ann’s second major flaw is that she has a long-standing habit of falling head-over-heels for political figures who (by her own subsequent admission) end up being frauds, charlatans, or plain morons. Among others, this includes W Bush, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, and Trump. On the latter, she attempted to explain away the fact that he hoodwinked her by saying she never could have imagined he would fail to follow through on his immigration promises.

I supported Trump’s campaign positions even more than Ann did. Yet I can honestly say it never even occurred to me that a lifelong cosmopolitan liberal Democrat, who couldn’t speak intelligently for ten seconds about the issues he professed to care about, never went more than two sentences without telling a bald-faced lie, and began his political career with the Birther lie, had even the slightest intention of following through on those promises. The fact that Ann fell for it, and often falls for it, makes it impossible for those of us who are kindred spirits to look to her for guidance on whom to support and whom to vote for during the primaries.

All that said, your interview with Ann was the most substantive commentary I ever heard from her, which made it extra enjoyable.

This next listener digs into some of the substance:

I think your and Ms. Coulter’s characterization of the past assimilation of immigrants paints a too idealistic picture, and is not completely accurate. I grew up in New York City, where immigrant groups had their own neighborhoods. While my experience is from the 1950s and after, I know that the earlier clustering was even more prominent. 

My experience of Chinatown exemplifies the long period of assimilation, probably driven both by choice and also by prejudice. Walking through Chinatown in the ‘50s and ‘60s was like entering a different country. On the streets the language spoken was Chinese, signs on the stores were also in that language, many, if not most, restaurants only had menus in Chinese. On the fringes of Chinatown were establishments that catered to a wider audience, and English signs and menus were available.

Other enclaves — Little Italy, German Town, the Polish enclave near where I lived, and other clusters — existed for many years. Certainly the little shtetls of the Lower East Side were rife with lots of folks who spoke only Yiddish, people who were excluded from employment, from certain businesses and from education (your alma mater, Harvard, among them). The immigrants from Central and Southern Europe, and other Catholic countries, like Ireland, were treated with suspicion, and also discriminated against. Their assimilation did not follow the petal-covered path you and Ms. Coulter implied.

One more listener:

Coulter’s vision of everyone sticking to their own homogeneous countries is a recipe for stagnation. There is a reason that every significant technological breakthrough of the last 70 years came from America! I have yet to see a laboratory — mine included — that does not thrive on the heterogeneous thought, creativity and insight that effortlessly flows from the human diversity that arises when selecting for intelligence and curiosity.

You cited the bland homogeneity of 1970s England. I lived in Western Europe through the entirety of the 2010s and not much has changed. People like Coulter — and the Bernie Bros — should try living in one of the countries they hold up as examples for America before they open their mouths. American culture is appropriation and it is a unique and beautiful thing.

All good points. Thanks as ever for expanding these conversations with your own critiques and feedback. The in-tray is always open: dish@andrewsullivan.com.