Virtuous Drinking and States of Intoxication

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from John O’Brien, a Lecturer in Sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland. His research has focused on alcohol policy, political leadership and social memory. In 2018 his book States of Intoxication, a historical sociology of alcohol and its place in state and society, was published. His recent work has focused on urban policy, examining the ‘creative city’ thinking, the growth of cultural quarters, and the expansion of the night-time economy. His current research projects focus on the secularization of addiction treatment services, alcohol-related public order offences in the night-time economy, and commemoration.

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMThe history of psychoactive substances is the history of taxation and the revenue base of states. That governments have always had this preoccupation can be seen in how the Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest records of any state, has more to say about alcohol than any other subject. The alcohol industry has long been promoted by states as a means of guaranteeing a crucial revenue stream. Nearer to our times alcohol contributed 40% of total revenue over the 19th Century in the UK (Harrison, 1971), with this falling continuously however, as economies become more complex, to 35% in 1900, to 12% in 1940, to 7% in 1967, to 3% in 1987, with the figure standing at 0.5-3% for EU states today (Anderson & Baumberg 2006: 54). While the falling dependence on alcohol has opened the door to public health policies, it remains an old-reliable that few governments are willing to forego, and liberalisation of other psychoactive substances is largely justified through arguments concerning revenue and the costs of foregoing it.

Bernard Mandeville, in the context of the 18th Century gin epidemic (inspired by a revenue hungry British government) wrote: “Bare virtue can’t make nations live, In Splendour; they, that would revive, A Golden Age, must be as free, For acorns, as for Honesty”. In other words, private vices can be public virtues, and an emphasis on virtue can be a recipe for poverty. Vice – a going to the extremes, a failure to act in a proportionate manner, a disregard for tradition – can be beneficial, as it will generate economic vibrancy and fill the coffers. We could perhaps trace the genesis of Anglo-Saxon attitudes to alcohol and psychoactive substances involving the propensity to binges to this sharp utilitarian perspective. It is a dramatic contrast to the virtue ethics that had largely governed use previously, stemming from Platonic thought, which emphasised what was in due measure, embodied in the figure of Socrates who could not become drunk. The true philosopher could not become drunk because they were the embodiment of the measure, of ‘the good’.

Continue reading →

Advertisements

Points Interview: John O’Brien

Editor’s Note: Today we present an interview with John O’Brien, a lecturer in sociology at the Waterford Institute of Technology in Waterford, Ireland, and author of the new book States of Intoxication: The Place of Alcohol in Civilization (Routledge, 2019). Enjoy!

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.11.51 AMDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The ‘publican’ who runs the ‘local’ is part of an ancient tradition of masters of ceremony who oversee drinking rituals. The public house is open to all, but a space of limits, where a ‘bar’ separates those in charge from the participants and a threshold is crossed to enter in a different space, with different rules from ordinary society based on controlled decontrolling. Pubs, bars, cafés, saloons have long been a source of anxiety as threats to the moral and political order. However, in the age of vertical drinking in superpubs, bar staff on short-term and insecure contracts who are unlikely to feel deep ownership over the space, concentrated ownership in pubcos with shareholders who may not even live in the country, preloading with cheap supermarket bought alcohol, they may begin to be seen as havens of informal social control, in contrast to anonymous, unstructured and individualised drinking. The book is interested in the role of ritual in structuring drinking occasions, and the threats to this. These always have masters of ceremony, rules and expectations, traditions and norms around reciprocity and excess that are obligatory to follow, and to make a generalisation, they hold problems in check. Government policy has an ambivalent effect on such rituals, tending to disturb and destroy them to various degrees, despite state’s supposed goal of minimising problems.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

I am a historical sociologist, and my interest is not so much in a precise and detailed account of a particular era, but rather to try to get under the surface of events to identify the processes that shape them. The book is looking at the process of state formation and the role that alcohol has played in this. What sets states apart from other types of organisations is that it holds a dual monopoly of violence and taxation, as it establishes itself as the only agency that can legitimately use force and raise revenue. Alcohol and other psychoactive substances have played a very important role in this mechanism, funding the growth of states to a very significant degree, particularly before the mid-20th Century. But this created a contradiction, as states have been dependent on alcohol to fund themselves, thus promoting the alcohol industry, while at the same time fearing drinking establishments and their role in subversion, undermining the moral order, and health of the populace. The result is simultaneous promotion and repression, which produces ambivalence, contradiction and disturbances in how we relate to alcohol. As a contrast, many anthropologists have noted the relatively unproblematic relationship with alcohol that the small-scale societies they have researched have. These non-state societies universally use some psychoactive substance, but because their use is ritually structured rather than governed through policy, problems seem to be much less.

Screenshot 2019-04-09 at 8.14.02 AM

John O’Brien

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

What I found surprising in the course of researching the book was the extent to which alcohol and psychoactive substances have been critical sources of revenue for states. That the figure could be over 60% of revenue raised in certain periods of certain states is astonishing. Modern states literally were built on alcohol.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I would love to write something on how spiritual and philosophical movements relate to alcohol. The book is very much focused on the institution of the state and its logic. Doing a proper study of the Abrahamic tradition, Greek philosophy and Asian philosophies and their contrasting perspectives on alcohol would be fascinating. There is such a dramatic contrast in attitudes towards and outcomes from drinking alcohol between the different civilizational areas, and this seems to be clearly based on the contrasting moral foundations that the worldviews based on their differing philosophies give. It is an intimidatingly huge and difficult topic though. But I will do it someday!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

I’ll go for Cillian Murphy, but in the Birmingham accent he uses in Peaky Blinders. I’m sure he wouldn’t charge too much.

 

Points Bookshelf: “Glass and Gavel” by Nancy Maveety

“Look, I like beer, okay? I like beer.”

If there is no other solace from the painful testimonies we heard from Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh last September (and there is not), at least we have Matt Damon’s portrayal of the justice on Saturday Night Live.

(The Washington Post made this helpful mashup if your memory needs refreshing:)

With Kavanaugh’s declaration of his beverage of choice still fresh in our minds, Nancy Maveety couldn’t have chosen a better time to publish Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), which details the two-hundred-year-long relationship between alcohol and our highest court. This swift-moving, thoroughly-researched, and useful (it contains recipes!) analysis of the often-tempestuous relationship between alcohol and constitutional law is a useful addition to the canon, not only because its history is unique–to my knowledge this the first extensive history of the Supreme Court’s alcohol rulings–but its format is unique as well. By combining a summary of the Court’s rulings with insightful drinking biographies of the justices themselves, Maveety has crafted a story that shows how America’s alcohol laws have shifted over time, alongside revealing portraits of how our country’s drinking culture has evolved along with, or in spite of, the legal landscape. 

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Each of the fourteen chapters focuses on a single Court era, as defined by its sitting chief justice, and Glass and Gavel moves swiftly from the John Marshall Era (1801-1835) to the John Roberts Era of today (2005-current). We watch as justices debate the question of who should be held responsible if liquor is “taken to excess” (this was during the Fuller era, 1888-1910, and Justice Stephen J. Field argued that it was not the seller’s fault), to more modern questions of regulating out-of-state alcohol sales during the “Rehnquist Era of Neo-Temperance” (1986-2005). Major rulings are outlined, Prohibition dominates the middle part of the book, and, by gaining deeper insight into the justices’ own views on drinking, we watch the history of America’s relationship with alcohol unfold from the lofty position of the judicial bench. Glass and Gavel is the story of alcohol in American life and law, told through the lens of the Court’s chief cocktail.

Continue reading →

Points Interview: Nancy Maveety

Today’s Points Interview features Nancy Maveety, Professor of Political Science at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana, and author of the new book Glass and Gavel: The U.S. Supreme Court and Alcohol (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019). At Tulane, she teaches courses in constitutional law, judicial decision-making, and her latest special topics class “Booze, Drugs and the Courts.”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 14.59.06Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

A cocktail-by-cocktail history of the Supreme Court and its decisions on alcohol and the Constitution. Eras of American drinking, in terms of practices and favorite potions, are superimposed on their corresponding time periods of the tenure of each chief justice in the Supreme Court’s history—with those chief justice eras looked at in terms of alcohol and the law.  

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

How both the social and personal behaviors and the decision making of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court reacted to as well as contributed to a (or to each) particular American “regime” of beverage alcohol’s restriction or enjoyment. Sometimes, restriction and enjoyment were simultaneous behaviors, and constitutional law was the vehicle for their uneasy coexistence in American life.

Alcohol and drug historians who are not U.S. courts or legal specialists might be surprised at how much rich material there is, with respect to “the Supreme Court bar.”

Screenshot 2019-03-25 15.28.30

Nancy Maveety

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

The fact that the culture of beverage alcohol intersected so neatly with the justices’ own drinking behaviors and preferences, as well as so often with the major issues in constitutional law, across the history of the Supreme Court.

For instance, it was just too perfect that at the same time that vodka really emerges in the American spirits pantheon, by the early 1960s or thereabouts, Chief Justice Earl Warren was ordering the vodka gimlet as his cocktail of choice (at the many lunches and banquets where his predilection is remembered and recorded).

Likewise, Supreme Court cases that raised questions about states’ regulations as to who could drink (legally), or who could work as a bartender, for instance, were among some of the major twentieth century decisions on gender discrimination and equal protection of the law under the Bill of Rights. The regulation of alcohol is a pretty frequent factual element of a lot of U.S. constitutional law—on major constitutional issues, to do with congressional commerce power, federalism, 1st Amendment freedom of speech, 4th Amendment privacy issues…the list goes on. Contemporary social attitudes toward alcohol don’t line up perfectly with Court rulings, of course, but many alcohol-related controversies are definitely products of their times.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over soon?

I’d love to see more archival work on alcohol in American political and legal life—more investigation into the nexus between political organization and social transformation in the U.S. and bars, drinking, and liquor as both a commodity and a vice.

Personally, I hope to be able spend more time immersing myself in the archival record of cocktail origins and fashions, and their connection to famous political moments or periods in American social history. Similarly, I want to do more detective work on the cocktails of choice of each of the justices of the Supreme Court!

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of the book, who should provide the narration?

Ken Burns—as long as he also agrees to serialize the book for PBS!

The Room Where It Really Happened: The Fraunces Tavern Museum

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she continues her series of museum reviews, all of which you can see here

The Fraunces Tavern Museum is located in lower Manhattan, New York. Conveniently, given the difficulty of driving in the area, it is less than five minutes’ walk from numerous subway stops, including Staten Island Ferry (the 1 line), Wall St. (2 and 3), Bowling Green (4 and 5), Whitehall St. (R and W), and Broad St. (J and Z). Adult admission is $7, but holders of a New York City library card are entitled to two free tickets per month. A visit can be expected to take about one hour. At 3 p.m. on a Monday, I had most of the galleries to myself, but 25,000 patrons are said to pass through annually. The museum is open weekdays from noon to 5 p.m. and weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Screenshot 2019-02-19 at 8.09.21 AM

The Fraunces Tavern Museum

Continue reading →

Distilling the Past at Mt. Vernon

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Matthew Pembleton, a lecturer at American University and a history consultant at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. He and I traveled to Mt. Vernon in September of this year to see how the plantation and living museum is recreating Washington’s drug-related history. A second post from our visit, about the farm’s cultivation of hemp, will run in January. Text by Pembleton, photos by me. Enjoy!

The turn of the seasons brings many changes to George Washington’s former estate at Mt. Vernon. Visitation winds down, the grounds crew prepares for winter and for the spring planting, and then the crowds return.  But one change stands out: late autumn and early spring is whiskey-making time.

On a drizzly fall morning, intrepid Points editors Emily Dufton and Matthew Pembleton ventured to George Washington’s former estate at Mt. Vernon to learn about the site’s first hemp crop in 200 years and the former plantation’s historic whiskey distillery.  Both products were important to the operations of Mt. Vernon at different points in Washington’s life and each reveals a new side of the nation’s first president—a savvy businessman and entrepreneur with an eye toward innovation, rather than a figure from American legend.  

And not surprise to readers of Points, both whiskey and hemp continue to draw visitors and the curious today.

Continue reading →

Towards a Global History of Intoxicants: The War on Alcohol

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Miriam Kingsberg Kadia , professor of history at the University of Colorado, Boulder. In it, she brings a global focus to drug and alcohol history and reviews Lisa McGirr’s book on federal Prohibition. Enjoy!

Screenshot 2018-10-18 at 8.23.09 AMLisa McGirr’s stimulating recent book The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State (Norton, 2016) links early twentieth-century temperance to the origins of the muscular federal authority we know today. Historians typically trace the enlargement of state power to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s efforts to lift the United States out of the Depression in the 1930s. However, McGirr points to earlier growth in the Prohibition era. By creating new categories of legal violations, the ban on brewing and selling alcohol transformed crime into a “national obsession” for the first time in American history. The government responded to public panic by expanding law enforcement—a measure whose effects linger today in such forms as the War on Drugs.

Continue reading →