John Buell

Beyond 'Just Say No' and 'Just Do It'

Contrary to the "just say no to alcohol" warriors, badgering social-drinking teens is counterproductive. In this culture we bring our teens up to think for themselves. They have jobs and cars from an early age. They know that many of their parents and many successful members of other cultures have been modest alcohol consumers. Pestered by their parents, they are more likely to seek dangerous escapes, less likely to request help for themselves or their friends if serious alcohol dependency emerges, and less likely to take warnings about drunken driving or more dangerous drugs seriously.

There are other steps to be taken. Government should focus on the inadequate educational and economic opportunities that too often lead excesses to become entrenched. Nonetheless, the issue of teen drinking even in middle-class communities should be a concern to progressives, but not in the sense we usually view it.

Progressives should be especially wary about jumping on the bandwagon that there is an epidemic across all socioeconomic segments and more particularly that mere social drinking inevitably causes problems. To the extent they become convinced that merely biting of the forbidden fruit of beer or wine is the source of immense evils even among the affluent, they may inadvertently lend support to the notion that in poorer communities, where the incidence of both problems and drinking is higher, the "real" cause of the poor's problems is that they started to drink before age 21 and therefore drink too much now.

More broadly, attacks on alcohol as itself the root of all evil all too easily morph into broadsides against other forms of leisure and pleasure, and become rationales for a view that the purpose of life is endless work and full rational control of the natural and social worlds.

Capitalism today is defended as a system that achieves rational control of the natural world. It is made possible by and rewards those who are good (who forego pleasure), and it punishes those who are bad (who indulge in any form of pleasure and escape). A struggle over the role that pleasure has and should have in any life should be at the heart of any progressive agenda. The left may appropriately want more equal distribution of the products of our industrial technology, but it should also push for more freedoms from the demands of the machine.

The ways in which issues of leisure, the market economy and alcohol all come together become more clear when we examine the new prohibitionists' campaign against Europe. Not only do conservatives attack Western Europeans for their short work weeks, they also suggest that more lax European attitudes toward teen alcohol consumption is the source of an alcohol epidemic in Europe. Aggregate statistics for all of Europe are trotted out to show that any more relaxed approach to alcohol results in unacceptable rates of alcohol dependency, disease and even violence.

But Europe is a big place, with many differences among and even within the same countries. A recent article in the Lancet, a distinguished British medical journal, points out that the rates of alcohol-induced cirrhosis in Great Britain, Scotland especially, have escalated in the last decade. But cirrhosis rates have declined dramatically since the late seventies in the mainly wine-drinking countries of Southern Europe.

Whatever the cause of those declines, raising the drinking age is not it. Brown University anthropologist Dwight Heath has identified characteristics of several subcultures in Europe where youthful alcohol consumption is widespread but problems relatively rare: "People can choose either of two equally acceptable options: (a) to abstain or (b) to drink in moderation. What is totally unacceptable is the abuse of alcohol. People learn how to drink from an early age within the safe and supporting environment of the home. They don't learn how to drink from their friends and acquaintances, who aren't looking out for their best interests. Common sense suggests that it's better to learn how to drink in the parents' house than in the fraternity house."

These studies, of course, are also correlations that don't prove a case. All the European cultures with fewer serious drinking problems are also more egalitarian and less workaholic than the US. My own prediction is that Europe's drinking numbers, just like a whole range of other pathologies that increase when societies become more inegalitarian, will increase as European business leaders work feverishly to strip away the protections of the social safety net and to impose longer working hours.

Rather than collaborate across trading blocks to impose limits to competition among nations and to major trading blocks, too many Europeans are aping the US economic model. And as pathologies rise many European health officials are adopting the "just say no" approach to alcohol. They will then use the increased incidence of serious alcohol problems among the poor as proof that alcohol is the root of their problems.

Nonetheless, I acknowledge that my perspective is informed by views on markets, human pleasure and the capacities and challenges of youth that many of my readers will find problematic. I have advanced some considerations on their behalf, but no total proof is ever likely. So I will end with a personal note and plea for greater humility on all sides.

Both as a parent and a policy advocate, I don't feel there is any magic bullet. I have known strict parents whose children now have severe alcohol and drug problems. A part of me is tempted to say "I told you so," but I know better. I have also known progressives whose values are close to mine who have suffered similar fates.

Substance abuse is a tragedy. Social conservatives and the public health community are right not to sweep it under the rug. My hope, however, is that all sides strive to be as open as possible to the limits of their own arguments and not treat dissent as treason. For someone like myself who sees an element of contingency and indiscernibility in the human condition, it is important to acknowledge that no cure will work in every case and final proofs of social policy are unlikely.

John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes regularly on labor and environmental issues. Email

From The Progressive Populist, July 15, 2006

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