America’s culture of fear – in a photo (2)

In the previous post I suggested that the capacity to be at least a little bit curious about an object of fear is essential to maintaining our humanity. Fear has a ravenous nature; if unchecked it simply keeps expanding. Over time multiple layers of protection can solidify around a core fear, like the concentric circles of an onion. We can’t even name the fear itself at that point, can’t even access it. But each of those additional layers cuts us off more and more from reality and creates various kinds of scapegoats we are unable to acknowledge. Each increasingly distorts our perception and diminishes our personal autonomy. It’s not hard to see that this syndrome has now pervaded our entire culture.

America’s current approach to alcohol is a straightforward illustration of this, and I’d like in this post to try and identify the core fear or fears – the center of the onion – lying behind it. In the following post on this subject I will then build up the onion, as it were, showing how we get from the core fear … to this (a photo I took last summer at a convenience store in upstate New York):


So, what is behind our de facto national prohibition of alcohol to those under the age of 21? (Note: with the exception of those Muslim countries in which alcohol is entirely illegal, only a handful of countries in the world have a drinking age above 18. Some have set 16, a number of others don’t legislate on the basis of age at all. So, we are in the draconian bottom 5-10%.) Our first thought is likely to be: the desire to reduce incidences of injury and death resulting from drunk driving. After all, this was the stated aim of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) at its founding in 1980 by Candace Lightner, who had lost her young daughter in this way.

With the help of then-Senator Frank Lautenberg (D, New Jersey), MADD succeeded in getting the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, which, through financial pressure on the states, resulted in every state raising their drinking age to 21 by 1988. Since then, having achieved its objective, the organization has gone on to lobby for further toughening of existing laws and additional measures, most controversially the creation of frequent sobriety checkpoints on roads and the raising of excise taxes on beer to match that on spirits. (Candace Lightner herself moved away from the organization in the mid-’80s, stating in a Washington Times article from 2002: “”It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned… I didn’t start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving.”)

We need to take a step back at this point and look more closely at what is going on. What are the components of the problem as such? There are three, and they are inseparable: alcohol, drinking too much, and driving. If any of these three are absent, we don’t have drunk driving, period. Notice also that age as such is irrelevant here. When a person of whatever age a) drinks alcohol, b) drinks to the point of impairment, and c) gets behind the wheel of a car, then and only then do you have a situation of risk.

(It’s important also to note that what constitutes “too much” does in fact vary from person to person, day to day, and even hour to hour, especially at lower levels of consumption. But in a scientistic culture where, more and more, mind is being collapsed into brain, these kinds of empirical truths increasingly can no longer be seen. All that matters is whatever magic number is called into service. It’s also crucial to remember that “impairment” occurs in lots of other ways too, via any form of inattention, whether it be texting, taking too long to change the radio station, turning to stare at a beautiful guy/girl, tiredness, or whatever it might be. Any of these scenarios can and do cause accidents, and most in the long run are simply impervious to legislation.)

So: why not just maintain a law against, well … drunk driving, and leave it at that? This is the entire point, after all.

The argument given is that raising the drinking age can be correlated with fewer incidences of drunk driving, and this can’t help but be true. (Much of the decrease surely also can be correlated with greater public exposure of the problem.) But if this is our logic, then why stop at 21? Raising the drinking age to 25 would save even more lives. Going back to Prohibition – even more. And in fact, of the three necessary components to drunk driving I pointed to above, driving is actually the most proximate cause of all, because it’s the vehicle which directly brings about the harm. So why not simply raise the driving age to 21, which would bring about all sorts of additional benefits?

And it is this last option I think which points to what is going on at a deeper level here. Even though raising the driving age to 21 would be even more effective at reducing car-related deaths than raising the drinking age, no one would dream of seriously suggesting it. And why not? Because despite the fact that car accidents are one of our leading causes of death, and have brought about all kinds of other negative environmental, social, and health effects, greater mobility is seen as a pure, innocent, necessary good. Intoxication of any kind, however, the heightening of ordinary, functional consciousness? Suspicious, always, in this culture. Especially in “the young.”

And let’s go one step further. Why is heightened or altered consciousness suspect? Simply because it moves in the direction of the previously unknown and the less certain. It threatens inertia, the purely habitual. It is a catalyst of new perceptions, can enable new ways of seeing.

Therefore we have a driving age of 16 and a drinking age of 21. And this says it all. At 16 we are deemed responsible enough to operate an extremely powerful and dangerous machine, but not responsible enough to have a beer or glass of wine – or, heaven forbid, sometimes several!

I don’t want to diminish the power of alcohol either. As we know it plays a part in a high percentage of instances of violence in our culture, and there will always be a relatively small minority for whom it will become a very destructive problem. But it seems that when it comes to the realms of bodily enjoyment and mental expansiveness we have lost all sense of balance. This feature of our core collective fear is so deeply buried that automatic suspicion has become the norm. We really don’t trust ourselves to navigate our own bodies and minds, so we relinquish responsibility to an abstraction called the law, which removes more and more of our individual discretion.

I’m leaving aside the question of enforceability here, though it’s not insignificant. An 18-year-old leaving home for the first time to enter a university environment where they will be surrounded by hundreds or thousands of other students their age is going to drink if they want to, regardless of the law. Any college student can testify that such a prohibition is easily, regularly, and almost universally flouted.

Mainly what I’m trying to show at this first level of response is that it is a purely pragmatic measure that has been elevated to moral crisis. Our culture treats this number as a moral principle in itself, as witnessed for example by the portentous – and infantilizing – tones of any number of public service advertisements on the subject over the years. Someone a single day over that magic number of 21 can purchase and drink as much alcohol as they like; someone who is younger by a mere two days is treated as having a “criminal mind” if they attempt to do the same. Many 16-year-olds are perfectly capable of drinking responsibly; many who are 26, or 36, or 56 are not.

A number will never make for a moral argument. Our culture worships numbers, however, partly because we don’t trust ourselves to make intelligent discretionary decisions, partly because we have come as a society to value safety and risk-aversion above almost everything else. So: more and more and more laws aiming to create a perfectly safe world which … can never come. Hence – as I’ll touch upon in the third and last post – a process that is hysterically out of control.