Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Social Maturity

Off to Burlington later today as a cold front has come in and the lake looks as though the temperature is at least 40 degrees below body temp.  

Burlington is a trip and always has been, with its odd mixture of old-time Vermont stuff, UVM-college-town brashness, and just plain weirdness.  Which is delightful in its own way.  The one place where memories of walking with my grandmother on Church Street while she runs into various tangential relatives (Jeneva, meet Hank, he's married to Aunt Catherine's cousin's daughter--or walking me by a house now an apartment building for college students in which a relative whose relationship to me she can at length elaborate once lived), yes, that sort of thing along with being in my Sunday best for a wedding and with my daughter and stopping by Ben & Jerry's and in the middle of a mixed group ranging from the casually dressed to the guy who clearly never cuts his beard and really, truly, seems to go barefoot even in the winter given the condition of his feet (and not because he's poor or insane, but because what seems most important in his life is the ethos of difference that permeates Burlington)--where these memories can co-exist.  

Today, I am going over the streets in my head (they are so familiar that I cannot always remember their names, but always know where I am going), and remembering the bar scene in the early 80s.  When I was 18, the drinking age was 18, and senior spring of high school, as we each reached the big birthday, we started venturing out in groups to the various bars and clubs, settling on Hunt's as the place to be because the music was so good, ranging from punk (Pinhead) to blues (Unknown Blues Band) to jazz (Kilimanjaro) and others--all danceable.  Hunt's no longer exists--was briefly an embarrassingly turned into Sha Na Na for a while, and may yet be a bar but under some different ownership.  Nector's still stands with its original sign--some I knew hung out there, but I never did.  Nector's dates back to my wild uncles' days at UVM (my dad's brothers--my dad was not wild, he was in the military) at least.  It's now next door to a really fine and elegant bakery.

I'm remembering this because my husband forwarded an article to me about a group of college presidents (led by the prez of Middlebury) who are trying to open up a discussion about lowering the drinking age and taking a lot of flak for it.  MADD is, of course, their big opposition, and the lobbying group that got the Reagan Administration to raise the drinking age to 21 by withholding highway funds as a sort of extortion.

Vermont and Wyoming, despite their clear need for federal highway funds, were the last to cave in.  Vermont did so after I had turned 21.  One of the reasons Vermont was reluctant to make the change was that, if I remember correctly, they'd had success in reducing drunk driving accidents after the drinking age was lowered from 21 to 18.  My wild uncles talk about hair-raising night-time drives on back roads and highways going both to bars in New York State and Montreal.  

While MADD clearly represents a worthy cause, I'm not convinced that they're right.  In the article, they blame the college presidents for not wanting to deal with the problem of drinking on campus and insist that drunk driving deaths have been reduced.  Because my husband and friends work in politics, I am prone to question studies and surveys that are used to support various causes with legislative implications because I know how jury-rigged they can be.  The mid-80s rise in the drinking age coincides with a period during which cars were made enormously safer through the development of better and better airbags and side- and front-impact advances.  

Is that taken into account?  Because human behavior sure hasn't changed.  College students are clearly still drinking, only now the drinking takes place in isolated, semi-hidden places where the goal is to drink to excess.  If you're at a bar with other people, you're surrounded by others of a variety of ages modeling different types of drinking behavior.  And most bartenders are not going to serve someone to the point that the individual passes out at the bar.  What we hear about more and more are serious alcohol abuse problems and related horrible behavior among kids in their late teens and early 20s, as well as rising suicide rates and depression in that age group.  Asking colleges to be nannies does not seem appropriate--the social modeling related to responsible drinking can only be done in clubs, bars, restaurants, and cocktail parties.

Drinking is a social activity, and has been socially acceptable across most world cultures since time immemorial.  As with sex, we in the U.S. seem to have a particularly punitive and convoluted relationship to drinking that seems, in part, rooted in the religious history of the U.S.  Fundamentalist Protestants are, of course, opposed to alcohol.  Huge blocks of people represented by groups with political clout don't want sex education and they don't want alcohol education.  MADD is the epitome of 1980s, Reagan-style punitive politics--remember that administration's other approaches to social policy?

The empathy appeal of MADD is undeniable, but is there really a direct causal link between drunk driving and the drinking age?  In public policy circles, people are always trying to draw causal links, while philosophers remind us that causality is never straightforward.  Does raising the drinking age cause other social problems?  What is the coherent public policy rationale for allowing people to vote and serve in the military at 18, but prohibit them from having a beer or a glass of wine?  How do you define social maturity?  Would alcohol education and PSAs that promote designated driving and denigrate the bad behaviors associated with excessive drinking be effective?  I grew up in the 1970s when the backs of the cigarette companies were being bent and finally broken, and the PSA campaign that depicted smoking as a low-class, ugly, uncool activity that would most likely end in a horrible death were awfully effective among my generation.    

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