Lowering the Drinking Age Makes Sense

Drinking Age

Lowering the Drinking Age Makes Sense

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An online petition set up by Andrew Mark Lisa to get the drinking age lowered to 18 has 55, 496 signatures. Comments left by signees range from the juvenile (“I LOVE LIQUOR! WOOT JAGER BOMBS”) to the pithy (“You can fight for your country, but you can’t drink”). There are the expected slogans from people using false names like Cockrum Ballstick (“GO BEER!”). And there are the annoyed anonymous types like Yousef, whose grammar is refreshingly twitter-friendly (“LOWER the DAMN AGE …you can join military at the age of 18, buy tobacco, vote at 18, drinking 21? WTF”). These are their arguments, and for the most part they can be summed up very easily: 1) Europe doesn’t have a problem with alcohol — why do we? 2) We can fight, we can kill, we can vote, we can smoke, we can drive, we can be drafted — but we can’t drink? 3) it will save lives.

The last one is perhaps a stretch. According to Andrew Mark Lisa in the preface to his petition, colleges across America would like to see a lower drinking age just as much as students would. He references a Time magazine article, which quotes Dartmouth College President James Wright saying a lowered age limit would help prevent alcohol abuse; campuses could better monitor drinking activities, etc. Perhaps — but it’s all just speculation. and, yes, a few states did actually lower the drinking age for a few years in the ’70s. But the Federal government stepped in and threatened to deny the states federal money for highways. And that was that.

What it all boils down to then is a game of politics, Puritanism, common sense, and frat house immaturity.

That said, the frat boys do make at least two valid points: European kids can drink. And American kids can go off to war — and not drink?

Even CNN is weighing in with reports that “the presidents of about 100 colleges and universities say current alcohol laws may actually encourage binge drinking on campuses” (CNN.com). It seems the only opposition, according to CNN in typical soundbite fashion, comes from Mothers Against Drunk Driving who fear “the change would lead to more fatal car crashes and move the problem of underage drinking from college campuses to high schools” (CNN.com). But might not we be missing the point? There are larger issues here at stake than MADD’s worst nightmare come true.

If we go back to the time of Al Capone, we just might find why the whole not-drinking-til-21 issue started, says Gene Ford, author of the French Paradox and founder of Healthy Drinking magazine. According to Ford,

minimum drinking age laws in the U.S. are a post-Prohibition phenomenon. Prior to the repeal of the Eighteenth amendment (Prohibition), state laws prohibiting minors from possession or use of alcohol were unusual. Adolescent alcohol consumption was regulated by the informal controls of family, community, peers, and self-restraint. The only drinking controls that have enjoyed any success over the centuries are social and cultural constraints.

What Ford suggests is at the root of the problem is not teenage alcohol abuse: it’s a social and cultural climate that is out of control. The Puritanism that spawned Prohibition backlashed at its repeal and set the bar at 21. Why? Puritan America has always had a distaste for alcohol. it’s as old as Melville’s Moby-Dick, in which the sailors’ store of booze is held back by the teetotalers. The trick? Crazy Ahab uses his own store of liquor to control the boys on deck and win them to his mad scheme which ends in destruction. Ford raises an interesting point — and Melville has the lesson: The drinking age limit is not about car crashes or binges: it’s about control.

That’s what laws have always been about.

But legalistic America insists on learning the hard way: legalism and lawlessness run back and forth with one another. Dartmouth College President James Wright might just have a point. Legalism doesn’t lead to control. It leads to anarchy. It leads to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Control, Ford says, has to be applied in a different manner.

What that manner has to do with is trust, confidence, the ability to make rational decisions; the willingness to curb desire.

America has always distrusted such a manner. Such a manner is European to the core — and America was founded by radicals who wanted to get as far away from Europe as possible. It is no wonder then that the nation insists on controlling its citizens (and especially the young) with inane laws that don’t make any sense — and then is baffled when the laws don’t work and its citizens revolt. That’s the other thing about America: it’s full of rebels. Whenever they feel (especially the young, again) that yoke of tyranny, you can bet they’ll react. How are they reacting to the drinking age limit? According to David J. Hanson, “an alcohol policy expert at the State University of New York-Potsdam,” they’re taking their drinking underground (Johnson).

Yet, the debate rages on between angry mothers and stickler fathers, while young adults who feel disrespected lash out in ways that range from the stupid to the erudite. Few are able to consider the problem in its proper context — not as a problem of control — but as a problem of consent.

Before going on, however, let us put to rest the fiction that MADD propounds, which is that the age limit saves lives. The kind of wishful thinking, speculative schlock they peddle only works on people like Sara Algoe, who writes on her hubpages: “If we lower the drinking age we might be contributing to more fatal accidents.” The fact is there’s not a shred of evidence to support such a claim. it’s all hypothesis. The decrease in alcohol-related car crashes MADD likes to refer to doesn’t have as much to do with the age limit as it does to significant shifts in cultural attitudes:

This downward trend in drunken driving across the industrialized world suggests that something other than a change in the drinking age was at work. Thanks to successful public education efforts, attitudes toward drinking and driving changed over time. The “designated driver,” a term unknown in 1984, indicates such an attitudinal shift. (Henson)

If alcohol-related crashes are fewer, maybe it’s because the same young people who are accused of acting immaturely are actually acting with more caution when it comes to considering the safety of their lives and the lives of others on the road. Underage drinking hasn’t stopped, that’s a fact. What has increased, however, is underage awareness.

Take that as proof that teenagers can act responsibly. The next logical step then is to create an atmosphere where they’re not coddled till they’re 22 and simultaneously clubbed over the head with looks of suspicion and outrageous laws that basically assess them as backwards hicks who can’t be trusted to handle a longneck.

The dissenters will point to the thousand and one spring break, MTV-style beach week parties, where every underage person in America appears to be enjoying a drunken orgy. But that’s MTV-style propaganda for you. TV and media, if nothing else, serve to promote such debauchery — and the debauched respond accordingly — why shouldn’t they? They’re given an outlet — they go for it. But dissenters shouldn’t be waving their fingers at them — they should be raising holy hell at the propagators. The weird fact of American Puritanism is that for every law it enacts to try to curb nature’s outlets, it opens up a flood of aggressive behavior that in an ordinary social milieu wouldn’t even exist. The examples are aplenty from the obscene violence of radio and television to the porn-obsessed proletariat — it’s sex and violence out there — and the legal drinking age limit is a concern? it’s laughable and kids know it.

Even ProCon.org’s cons can’t keep pace with the pros. The pros for lowering the drinking age outnumber the cons nearly two-to-one. The fact is dissenters don’t have much room to argue when it comes to the facts of the matter: what they trumpet is a kind of hysteria propped up by lots of speculation.

What the pros offer, however, is sound logic: “Drinking in moderation is good for one’s health, including people aged 18 to 20” (ProCon.org). How’s that for common sense? Why, the world has known that since the beginning of time.

What both sides have to be aware of, however, is that no lowering of the drinking age — no matter how small — is going to be the cause of an immediate change for the better. If Cockrum Ballstick and his mantra, “GO BEER!” is going to go away, it’s not going to be because of another law — it’s going to take serious reflection.

To that end, Gene Ford offers this perspective:

No one seriously contends that alcohol beverages should be free of societal controls. The question isn’t whether there should be controls, but which controls work best. What has proven around the world to work best is a combination of reasonable laws backed by strong social sanctions. But in the U.S. we treat our emerging adults as infants and get infantile behavior as a result…if adults would learn to temper their patronizing attitudes toward young men and women, more maturity, self-restraint, and social responsibility could be expected of them. Lowering the drinking age to 19 would do much to reduce the youthful abuse of alcohol.

As Ford says, society has to play its part. Acting responsibly and expecting accountability are two things everyone can work on — not just teens and not just adults. This is a social problem — and the social norms of America have gotten so wacky that few even know where to start to curb the dishevelment. Common sense would urge that the best form of control starts in the home — with parents instilling in their young a proper and due respect for themselves as well as others.

But when half the homes in America are minus at least one adult acting as Mom or Dad — can you seriously expect the instilling to take place? Who’s going to do it? Dr. Phil?

No — the underage abuse of alcohol is not the problem. If anything — it’s a symptom of a much larger problem. That much larger problem is the worm at the heart of the American dream, which says it can control its own destiny, reshape human nature, curb licentiousness by laying law upon law. But even Hawthorne saw that this was a big mistake and tried to give everyone the parable of Hester Prynne to prove it.

The fact is America has Puritanical roots, while Europe has Christian ones. Christ changed water into wine to let the party go on. Puritans cut that section out of Bible and buried it under the rug.

What’s needed to change the milieu? Perhaps more than anyone can bear. But a proper restoration of common sense is a good start. And treating youths fairly rather than like potential thugs to be arbitrarily slapped down is a good course of action.

If a society wants respectable young men and women — it better start treating them like respectable young men and women — and not as the kind of garbage endlessly purveyed on the American television screen.

Shocking? Perhaps. True? Absolutely.

In fact, in conversations, more people tend to agree with this point-of-view when it is put to them logically and non-emotionally than the other. Why? The argument makes sense. And common sense is called common for a reason.

Andrew Mark Lisa may have the right idea. But it is going to take a whole lot more than a bunch of signatures to change the mental thinking and cultural attitudes of America. Do that, and then you might be saving lives.

Works Cited

Algoe, Sara. “Do not lower the drinking age to 18.” Hubpages.com, 2009. Web. 22

Feb 2011. .

“Drinking Age.” ProCon.org, 14 Feb 2011. Web. 22 Feb 2011.


Ford, Gene. “Why We Should Lower the Drinking Age to 19.” Alcohol Problems and Solutions, n.d. Web. 22 Feb 2011. .

Henson, Scott. “Should the U.S. lower the legal drinking age?” Pegasusnews.com, 20

Aug 2008. Web. 22 Feb 2011. .

Johnson, Alex. “Debate on lowering drinking age bubbling up.” Msnbc.com, 14 Aug

2007. Web. 22 Feb 2011. .

Lisa, Andrew Mark. “Petition to Lower the U.S. Drinking Age to 18.”

Petitiononline.com, n.d. Web. 22 Feb 2011. .

“Should U.S. lower drinking age?” ireport.cnn.com, n.d. Web. 22 Feb 2011.


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