Liquor can teach us a lot about the human condition. I’m not talking here about the wisdom occasionally to be found at the bottom of a glass of scotch upon a lonely evening. I mean that we can gain insight into where a society is and where it is going from the way it deals with alcohol. And in the modern world, this relationship is distilled (har!) in the form of its laws on the subject. One of the things we do as a race is organize, regulate, and restrict ourselves. Sometimes for the better, often for the worse. And the small subsection of this societal control that deals with alcohol is a very useful canary in a coal mine for the health of a people’s political environment.
Up until early in the twentieth century, miners carries caged canaries under ground with them. The birds sang constantly for the miners to hear. Of course, this wasn’t some primitive earbudless iPod setup to entertain them. As they delved deeper and deeper into the Earth, the miners wrapped themselves in an ever more restricted environment. It is hard for a human to detect when his or her air is failing, especially when it may be due to their own exertions.
The canaries were even more sensitive than the miners to the quality of the environment they were making. If the miners dug too deep or too narrowly, if they failed to ventilate their works well enough, the canaries would die and the music would stop. The miners would realize that they were endangering both themselves as individual and their collective enterprise. They’d leave immediately and rethink what they were doing.
Another warning that you have delved too deeply is if you release a Balrog, but I’ll leave that discussion to the patrons of this place.
Like digging a mine, building a good civilization (one that nourishes the bodies, minds, and souls of its inhabitants) is hard, dirty, and very dangerous work. And as we build the grand and beautiful edifice of our societies we often can lose sight of the ways that we are simultaneously suffocating what made building the structure worthwhile to begin with, and eventually endangering the entire thing.
Booze makes a good canary for the the citizens who undertake this work for a bunch of reasons. First, we have had alcohol as long as we’ve had civilization. In fact, the argument can convincingly be made that making alcohol is responsible for civilization’s rise to begin with.
Secondly, I’m sure we’ve been debating alcohol’s merits since at least the Thursday after its introduction. Probably after the first time a man came home too drunk to start the fire, or perhaps unable to perform, um, other duties around the home…. Even for those of us who are proponents of drink, it must be clear that it has its dangers.
Third, the dangers of drink are clear, and easily identified in individual data, while its benefits and the harms of its absence are less direct or obvious.
The builders who concern themselves with production, be they capitalists or especially socialists, hate booze for the loss of productivity it supposedly brings. Those who are fixated upon the general health of the people hate booze for the terrible effects of its irresponsible use. Those whose concern is the strength of governing institutions love booze… for the money they can harvest from those who make, sell, and consume it. The list goes on.
In short, alcohol is an easy target. Like the canary, it is more vulnerable to the ambient danger in question than others. And by keeping an eye on its treatment, you can see dangers that you might not be able otherwise to see. Or, and this is crucial, that you might not be otherwise inclined to see.
The analogy is not exact, of course. Canaries die easily. That’s why they were used. Conversely, booze would be next to impossible to kill, no matter the heavy-handed methods of its opponents.
I get a lot of hits from the Islamic Republic of Iran on this blog. Why? Because people there want to know about building secret bars in their basements where they can drink. They flog people in Iran, just for drinking….
But while you won’t see a total death of drink, you can infer a lot about a society from what its elites want to “do about” the “problem” of alcohol. And you can tell a lot about that society by what its citizenry is willing to accept from said elites.
The impetus for all this musing is a post written by Bruce Bawer, an American expatriot who lives in Norway. His post, Cheap Spirits and the Spirit of Freedom, discusses the profound, almost painful, culture shock he encountered when visiting the US recently in the simple act of picking up a bottle of Smirnoff. You should read the post for yourself, as it goes far beyond the culture shock, but I’ll summarize the Norwegian world he had unwittingly become accustomed to before coming home and noticing the canary:
- All wine and spirits are sold by a government agency whose name is literally “The Wine Monopoly“.
- These stores close at six on weekdays and three on Saturdays.
- 1.75 liters of Smirnoff will cost you right at One Hundred and Twenty Five Dollars at current exchange rates.
- Every political body, Left and Right, in Norway thinks this is a swell way of doing things. (Except for those virtual anarchists in the Progress Party who think the stores should stay open until 8 on weekdays.)
All this mayhem comes from the first item in Maetenloch’s Overnight Open Thread at Moron HQ.