Controversy is brewing - pun intended - over a common sense proposal by a large number of American university professors to lower the drinking age nationwide to 18 years old. As was to be expected there is considerable opposition to this proposal especially from Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In the interests of full disclosure, in two weeks I will begin my fourth year of fall classes as an adjunct professor of communication at the University of Hartford. That has nothing to do with my position on this issue so I am throwing up a Dead End sign to keep this discussion on track.
I totally agree with the concept of lowering the drinking age, and I say that from the vantage point of having dealt with varying drinking ages and regulations across the country when I was a Marine in the Vietnam era. I also have dealt with the drinking age as the father of two children who have gone through the process of learning about alcohol in our society - including sleepless nights when they are out in a vehicle and you can't relax until they are home safe - and as the brother of a teen who was killed in a car accident in which alcohol may have been a factor.
As I see it, the biggest problem with alcohol in American society is that we have made it into the stuff of myths, bigger than life, taking on an importance far beyond reality. If you drink you are cool, you are sexy, you are grown up, and you are well rounded. If you don't drink you are less interesting, you have "issues," you are a stick in the mud, in short, you are a nerd.
That is the myth. Reality is drunken binges becoming a way of life on and off college campuses, that result from an absence of common sense when we talk about booze. As a country, we have an aversion to talking about the down side of alcohol, possibly fearing a return of the Carrie Nation days and taking booze away from responsible drinkers.
We talk only in hushed whispers of alcoholism; unprotected, promiscuous sex; transmission of sexual diseases; unplanned and unwanted pregnancies; loss of productivity; loss of standing among peers on the job, at home and and in the community; alcohol induced violence; broken marriages; ruined childhoods; and yes, deaths, disabilities and destroyed lives from drunken driving.
But we emblazon billboards, television ads and slick magazine pages with beautiful women who are just waiting for you to take a sip of whatever drink they are peddling before they strip off their evening gowns and offer themselves up for every fantasy that pleases the viewer. Ads aimed at women are just as suggestive with male hunks waiting inside every singles bar to share an aperitif as a prelude to sweeping the heretofore unappreciated women off their feet and straight to a lifetime of love and happiness.
Is there any social activity that can be enjoyable without a cooler of iced-down alcoholic beverages prominently displayed in the foreground?
I heard a discussion on this issue today and the case was made that if we can expect young men and women to join the military, fight and die for their country, even vote for our political leaders, they should be able to drink. The counter-point is that we train young men and women in the military, but we don't train them to drink.
Well, then, it obviously is way past time to start. We require drivers education courses before we allow teens to get behind the wheel. Why on earth don't we require equally intensive alcohol education classes?
I joined the Marines shortly after my 18th birthday, and in my home state of New York I was allowed to drink anything I wanted. I actually had my first beer outside of the house when I was 16 or 17, and my father had given me sips from his pilsner glass as long as I could remember.
But after boot camp and infantry training I was sent to Jacksonville, Florida for six months of basic aviation electronics training. There the drinking age for all forms of alcohol was 21 so I wasn't legally allowed to drink anything.
I spent one long weekend at home during that period and used it as a time to ingest as much alcohol as I could get my hands on since, compared to my peers who weren't in the service, I was way behind on adult development and bar stories. At least that's the way it seemed at the time.
I also made every effort to acquire booze when off base in Florida, because in the barracks the over-21 Marines who could drink were seen as real men who could pick up women on liberty, while the rest of us were mere boys. I once found a six pack of Schaeffer beer, my favorite beer from my New York days, in a 7-11 store near the naval base. Since I couldn't buy it myself, I enlisted the help of an older Marine who got it for me.
I ended up sitting on the railroad tracks sharing the beer with a Marine friend and we nearly got run over by a train. That wouldn't have happened if we were in a seedy bar drinking legally and trying to pick up trashy women.
Later, at the helicopter base where I was stationed in North Carolina, we had squadron beer parties, bosses nights at the enlisted club, and myriad excuses for drinking. The myth that you couldn't be a man if you didn't drink was alive and well in those situations.
That myth also included the caveat that you weren't a real man if you couldn't hold your liquor, meaning you were expected to drink all night long and stay on your feet. In retrospect, those who pushed the "drinkers are real men" myth actually were developing alcoholics who were really, really obnoxious when they were drinking, which was most of the time.
Also, in North Carolina I could legally drink beer, but not stronger alcohol which wasn't served in bars, but which could be purchased at liquor stores. On the way to Vietnam I could drink in Louisiana, but not in California, but I could in Hawaii where I and about two dozen friends spent six hours hammering back shots on Hotel Street, Honolulu, which was our last stop before Quang Tri and the war.
In Vietnam the only reward we ever received for a job well done was beer. It was doled out to lower ranking enlisted Marines when it was available, and we would fly cases of beer to the hilltop fire bases so the infantry could have one on occasion too. That beer was usually cheap, and hot, but it didn't matter, it was beer and it was coveted far beyond its true value.
In the rear areas, beer and other forms of alcohol were readily available and a lively black market existed supplying travellers from remote areas with booze to bring back to the forward combat bases.
It is no wonder that after Vietnam and after the service alcohol continued to occupy a position far above most other facets of modern life. But military service wasn't the only breeding ground for a warped view of alcohol's importance. College campuses, factories, construction sites and business offices all were and are equally complicit in advancing the myth that life without alcohol is not worth living.
I was born and raised in a blue-collar home, and a blue-collar community, and for years it never even occurred to me that lunch could be enjoyable without a beer. But when I graduated from college and entered the white-collar working world I found little difference in attitudes toward alcohol, only in their choice of beverage and the social status or stigma it conveyed.
Wine snobs may look down at martini sippers, who may look down on blue-collar workers slugging back boilermakers, but the only real difference between them is the packaging and distilling methodology of their preferred beverage.
Alcohol maintains an equally solid place at office parties, country clubs, and neighborhood bars alike. Virtually every form of sporting and entertainment event on the American scene advertises alcohol, and the not-so-subliminal message is that without alcohol, the event can not be fully enjoyed.
Yet we do little to nothing to prepare our youth for the onslaught of pressure to be an alcohol consumer. Why are we not requiring students to learn, really learn, about the effects of alcohol? I figure high school would be an appropriate time to start this teaching, since it is the time that there seems to be the most pressure to conform.
We have seen plenty of news reports over the years about children bringing drugs and alcohol to elementary and middle schools, but it is in the high school years that the highest percentage of students will be away from parental supervision for the first time, and they should not enter the world of alcohol unprepared.
If a 16-year-old drunk gets an elevated status in his world - high school - by bragging about being "wasted" over the previous weekend, and "blowing chunks" due to intoxication, why as adults do we not offset this romanticized scenario?
Why don't we require high school students to view videos of weekend alcohol bashes featuring campus big shots looking like total asses? Why are we not showing impressionable students what happens to young women who are trivialized, subjected to groping, and sometimes far worse, due to the alcohol induced attacks by their classmates or reduced awareness due to alcohol consumption on their part?
Alcohol is ingrained in our society for better or worse. But there are ways to learn about alcohol that can show appreciation for a fine wine, a good blend or single malt scotch, what constitutes "sipping whiskey" and why sipping is the preferred method to drink it, or teaching about microbrewing as an honored profession.
Enforcing the concept of moderation, denying the drunken lout the infantile status that accompanies binge drinking and bragging about hangovers, has to be a far better approach than what is in place now - literally nothing.
We are in denial as a nation if we think that we can legislate appropriate use of alcohol. All we really do with that approach is give alcohol a myth-like status that makes attaining it, and abusing it, even more attractive.
Every adult I have ever known who had a problem with alcohol or other forms of substance abuse formed his or her attitudes about drinking in high school. Universally those attitudes were childish, romanticized, distorted and led to similar issues in adulthood.
We are in a war with alcohol, and we are ceding the most important part of the battlefield. We are the adults, but we are in denial.
It is way past time to stand up to our own responsibilities, but it is not too late.
Sunday, August 24, 2008