Normally, this blog features my writing related to my profession: the design, development, and deployment of software. Today, however, I’d like to address a cultural topic that is timely and important to me.
No matter how conservative or how liberal your parents were, regardless of their child-rearing techniques, in America, your parents were probably not the ones who taught you how to drink alcohol. Few kids are still at home, learning social niceties from their parents, by age 21. When you are finally old enough to drink legally, you experiment with your limits on your own or with your peers.
That’s the main reason why there are so many terrible alcohol-infused traffic tragedies in America. It’s one reason why so many young people have embarrassing memories of their early college years, and why there are so many cases of date rape. Yet another drug prohibition that does more harm than good.
I write this upon learning that a 22-year-old boy, drunk as a skunk, at bar closing time, lost control of his pickup truck and slammed it into the facade of my favorite store in Petaluma, Thistle Meats. No serious injuries, this time, but a young man will have this utterly avoidable black mark on his record forever, and today, the carpenters are busy putting Thistle back together.
What, exactly, does the restriction on drinking do? It just forbids parents in America from spending quality time with their children over a friendly glass of wine or beer. No parent would ever egg their child on to “Chug, chug, chug, chug,” and yet that is exactly how many people celebrate their 21st birthday and their first legal drink.
Sure, most everyone has tried alcohol before they turn 21, but few do so with their parents. Your Mom and Dad spend some time every single day with junior, teaching him how to eat, how to talk, and how to behave in social situations. But alcohol is never a daily experience, and if it has any role in the family it is for a religious ritual or a special occasion, and virtually never until the child is in their advanced teens.
In many countries, parents share watered-down alcohol with their children at every meal. The kids learn, in a safe and controlled environment, just what intoxication is like. Then, as an adult, they are less compelled to binge drink. In the United States, our fear of alcohol abuse prevents us from becoming familiar enough with alcohol to have a healthy relationship with it.
Alcoholics are exceptions. Some people need alcohol the way the rest of us need food. Whether they first taste booze at 21 years or 21 months won’t make a lick of difference. Is that 22-year-old who smashed into the store front an alcoholic? Probably not. He’s likely just a hard-working, decent kid with god-fearing, law-abiding parents who, in obeying a silly prohibition, failed to prepare their baby for a world that encourages him to get blind stinking drunk just one day after he is a criminal if he has a glass of Budweiser with his pizza.
We come by this fear legitimately, as alcohol abuse has a long history in these parts. Petaluma was a rip-roaring town around the turn of the last century, and when you live on a farm, the roads are unpaved, rutted, and muddy, and your nearest neighbor is a couple of miles away, alcohol can be a balm. Volpi’s Restaurant on East Washington Street, now just a place for folks to get a large plate of bad spaghetti, was once Volpi’s General Store with an infamous speakeasy in the basement. Back when it was a day’s chore to hitch up the wagon and drive to town, farmers would order their salt and flour upstairs, then retire downstairs for a snort. Tales of drunken cowboys and shit-faced chicken farmers are still told in hushed tones. I’ve no doubt that alcohol abuse was a widespread scourge and taming it was a worthwhile exercise.
Enough so that The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) fought hard to bring sobriety to a reluctant town. Their attempt at a solution was simplistic and ineffective, foreshadowing Nancy Reagan’s equally simple-minded and ineffective directive a century later, “Just say no.” In 1891, the WCTU erected a granite testament to our fear of alcohol in downtown Petaluma, just a couple of blocks down the main street from Thistle Meats’ smashed facade. It’s a water fountain — water being the recommended refreshment in lieu of alcohol — with the carved inscription, “TOTAL ABSTINENCE IS THE WAY TO HANDLE THE ALCOHOL PROBLEM.” If I ever utter a statement so achingly, astonishingly, blindly false as this one, I certainly hope that it won’t be carved in stone and placed downtown for future generations to wonder at my foolishness.
Yet, the efforts of the WCTU bore fruit, and in 1920 Congress not only outlawed all alcoholic consumption in the United States, but did so with a constitutional amendment! It was such a bad move that it accomplished three significant things within 13 short years.
- Alcohol consumption in America changed dramatically, shifting from beer and wine to hard spirits, simply because it was easier to smuggle hard booze.
- Because it was forbidden, the price of illegal alcohol was far higher than the formerly cheap commodity, virtually forcing the creation and flourishing of an organized criminal class in America.
- The immediate recognition of what a colossal failure Prohibition was and the repeal of the 18th Amendment by yet another Constitutional Amendment, the 21st, in 1933.
We would be far better off if we conquered our fears instead of institutionalizing them. It is far more difficult to cope with wave after wave of young people ill-equipped to drink than it is to just let every parent teach their children to cope with booze the same way they teach them to cross the street. Sure there will be failures, but we have guaranteed massive failures today.
Note: Total abstinence may be a fine solution for you or some other individual, and I respect your choice, but forced universal abstinence does not work.
Here’s a really good book on the evils of prohibition, drug prohibition.