March 16, 2007
My 21st birthday is tomorrow, so it seems appropriate to address the absurdity of the alcohol regulations that I have opposed since I was 16. This seemingly random birthday became a rite of passage of sorts in this country in 1984, when Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, a piece of legislation that strong-armed states by threatening their highway funding unless they made 21 the legal age for drinking alcohol. The bill was lobbied though the effective efforts of MADD under the noble prestense of ending drunk driving, but it now stands as the highest drinking age in the industrial world (and the highest in the entire globe, excluding a handful of Muslim countries). This apparent deterrent has, over time, become ingrained in the American mindset, and there is only a minute chance of it ever being lowered or modified without bringing on the full wrath of one of the most powerful and well-organized lobbies in the country.
But where does this law come from? The drinking age of 21 was the basic default for most states throughout the United States after Prohibition, a colossal failure, was lifted in 1933. After the war in Vietnam, however, many states reexamined their laws and 29 states lowered their ages to 18 or 19 (largely in response to the recognition of the irony in drafting 18 year-olds to die for their country but not trusting those same people to either vote or drink). Rising drunk driving-related deaths led to the formation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 1980. The original president and founder of the organization, Candy Lighter, created MADD after her 13 year-old daughter was killed by a drunk driver, but she left the same organization in 1985 after saying that MADD has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I had ever wanted or envisioned. Since then MADD has become a juggernaut across North America and its efforts have continually blurred the line between being anti-drunk driving and out-right anti-alcohol. The use of Lighters prohibitionist label is particularly telling, as it correctly identifies MADD as the continuation of a long tradition in American society of political and religious groups organized against alcohol for a series of often controversial reasons that many people today would identify as outright puritanical or even racist.
American culture has always had a strange relationship with drinking. The first settlers from Europe in New England were the pyschologically rigid and oppressive Puritans, who first instilled a hatred of alcohol. As time progressed and different groups of people arrived in this country (whether willingly or not), a fear of the other soon became a pervasive element of the mindset of the Anglo-Saxon elite, prompting bans on alcohol in various states in localities in the hopes of ending drunkenness amongst the immigrants, Indians, Blacks, and any other group of whom the teetotalers were scared. My Italian ancestors soon found that their tradition of wine with dinner was scorned by the Protestants in charge at the time, and that this particular complaint was a thinly-veiled attack on Catholicism (something the Irish and other immigrant groups were also discovering). This led to the constitutional ban on alcohol in 1920, which in turn lined the pockets of some of most despicable and murderous thugs throughout the country as they built huge criminal empires from the pockets of people who wanted the freedom to drink, like adults in other countries.
But how does this relate to the ban on college students under the age of 21 being able to watch the Pats game and drink a beer? Simply put, the same failed policies of prohibition have been updated to fit todays society. Germans, Italians, Irish, and most of the major groups of immigrants from the early 20th century have now become white and are no longer thought as being a singular minority groups. Assimilation has made it harder to push through blanket bans on alcohol as the acceptance of these groups has normalized attitudes about alcohol, excluding the issue of children. In reality, nobody wants a country with alcoholic elementary school children, but therein lies the major problem of defining what qualifies an adult. Eighteen is the generally accepted age for executions, voting, gambling, military service, tobacco purchase, and sexual consent, but since a large portion of high school seniors are still 18 before they graduate, lawmakers find alcohol consumption or purchase at 18 out of the question.
MADD defends its effort to keep the drinking age at 21 as another part of its battle against drunk driving. The group says teenagers can be incredibly stupid and reckless and they have a point. Sixteen year-olds are not responsible enough to drink moderately and drive effectively, but in all honesty, those same teens should not be driving in the first place, drunk or sober, as young drivers are for the most part dangerous. That does not mean that denying alcohol to everybody between the ages of 18 and 21 is in any way an intelligent measure towards fostering responsibility. Ask most college sophomores about their freshman year and you will find a similar story. After being released from the bonds of their parents, the typical student enters a place where alcohol is readily available. The students admit having over-consumed alcohol more times than they would have if they’d been able to experiment before they left home. The former president of Middlebury College, John M. McCardell Jr., has said as much in a New York Times article that he wrote after he retired. He has since created the group Choose Responsibility, which is fighting the 21 year-old drinking age on the basis its being a bad social policy and terrible law and it is delusional to believe that college students cannot get alcohol on a regular basis.
Brandeis has an equally questionable record on the alcohol issue. Most of the students here drink on the weekends, yet they are forced to do so through binging and pre-gaming (sometime alone) in order ameliorate the lame social engagement that awaiting them.
Contrary to popular belief, the lameness of Brandeis parties is not the fault of the copious numbers of awkward kids who attend our school, but rather the systematic patronizing nature of the Department of Student Life, Residence Life, and misguided parents. Events like Purple Rain are nothing more than tangible evidence to the clueless nature of those who govern our campus concerning the needs and desires of our student body. One of the more humiliating experiences of this year was when I spent 20 minutes inside the fenced-off childrens play pen at Purple Rain, next to a table of snack food with a handful of other angry students. I left that event almost immediately and went back to what was then my dry suite to have a glass of scotch with a few of my friends. Believe it or not, absolutely anything horrible happened! Many college administrators will privately say that they cannot prevent underage-drinking and that the current law allows them no recourse towards creating a fun yet responsible atmosphere on campus.
The basic truth is that I have been waiting in eager anticipation for years now for the simple opportunity to be treated like an adult when I enter a restaurant or bar. It is pathetic to wash down a nice steak with water, or watch a game at Fenway while sipping a Diet Coke. The patronizing attitudes of the state and campus authorities do not create responsible adults, but instead a destructive curiosity among the same people they wish to protect from the assumed dangers of alcohol. The act of turning 21 years-old is no real achievement or proof of adulthood;
rather, the arbitrary nature of this law is needless and dangerous.