I love reading. I read so much; reading sustains me in a way very little else does in life. I feel terrible on dating apps juxtaposed to all the people who list rock climbing, hiking the AT, and underwater basket weaving as active and exotic hobbies. I have even found a way to make a career of interacting with books. Yet even I have a limit.
It was this realization, sometime in college, that gave me insight into prohibitionism. Without the adult pacifier of video streaming, I just don’t know what I’d do all day. I’m sure, ultimately, I’d be able to figure something productive out—I’ve had my share of quarantine projects after all. And I do, genuinely, have other hobbies. But acknowledging that if I didn’t have YouTube and Netflix and Hulu and the half-dozen other streaming services I use I might be more tempted to pass some of the time drunk helped me to understand certain moments in history. I’ve heard the collapse of prohibitionism in the United States attributed to the Great Depression from both the perspective of increasing tax revenue (sound familiar?) and in generally raising the national spirit; but as a pet theory let me point out that talking pictures and radio emerged as ready forms of entertainment, alternatives to strong beer, throughout the 20s.
Alcohol wasn’t a phantom threat—whiskey and rum were a very real social scourge that led to anti-alcohol campaigning being seen as a core women’s issue. I’m certainly not pro-prohibition today, but I get it. The Anti-Saloon League might have had a point, for a time.
Yet while refounding historical movements, or at least embracing old ideologies left, right, and center has been in vogue lately, nobody (to my knowledge) has bothered to recreate the Anti-Saloon League. In fact, there have been a steady stream of sympathetic articles about out of work barkeeps whose unemployment is running out and for whom a $600 stimulus is not enough.
At the same time, articles and opinion pieces have been proliferating about alternatives to alcohol. The Post recently ran a piece about how to abstain “for a month—or longer.” This is only one of many, countless, stories about alcohol alternatives, mocktails, discussions about collective drinking habits. Driven first by work from home, then The Queen’s Gambit, and now the annual binge of New Year’s resolutions, these stories have proliferated.
By no means am I the first to note this emerging “New Sobriety” trend—even before this year. This is what feels to me to be a measurable shift from just a few years ago, when the potential health benefits of a regular glass of wine were regularly touted—something left out in the most recent health guidelines. I’m not trying to impugn the reputation of anybody for choosing to not drink. While one might be reminded that Trump is dry, my goal is to avoid even jokingly raising the spectre of another “Hitler was a vegetarian.” This is my point: I don’t care what choices you make here. What I do dislike is when a new generation [neo-] who rally to an old cause [prohibitionism] try to forward their agenda by disguising [crypto-] their agenda as a fashion.
While America is in the process of at long-last legalizing it (or trying to decriminalize it), all premised on admitting that prohibitionism doesn’t work, we seem to be moving backwards on—as my grandfather insisted on calling it—hooch. You’d look like a hypocrite if you proposed banning alcohol outright. Perhaps including “crypto” in the title of this reflection adds too sinister an air to the intentions of others, but I am trying to raise a question: will activists accomplish in the plush language of Health and Influencing what they could not accomplish through taking hatchets to kegs or a Constitutional amendment?
And is anything lost in this effort? What does alcohol give us? I do feel compelled here to add that alcoholism is very real and that I encourage you, reader, to see help if you need to. But does its presence as a cultural force give us, as a society, anything of value? If I say relaxation I am fearful of insinuating self-medication. If I say socialization, I am fearful of the word crutch. I daren’t even mention creativity.
Do we (light-to-moderate) drinkers now have to own up to a death wish? I don’t care enough to publicly endorse an intentional lifestyle of alcohol consumption à la Christopher Hitchens. But is there room anymore, in the era of healthy everything, when even our clothing sacrifices style for the ability to say “I exercise,” for a drink or two on Friday night? I don’t know. I do know that I don’t like having to ask this.
Feature image: The Drunkard’s Progress by Nathaniel Currier