A close friend recently quit drinking alcohol. His choice for a teetotal lifestyle changed his life. He lost 20kg, grew confident, and exudes positive calm. But abstinence also revealed something strange. Everyday life turned into a kind of religious experience; the kind where fanatics run the show and oppress non-conformers. “It’s like being an atheist in the buzzed, bellicose cult of Bacchus,” he says. Well, this friend can be a bit of a drama queen. But the analogy deserves attention. For the majority is always wrong.
In The Easy Way to Control Alcohol, Alan Carr offers a magnificent argument for contrarianism:
If nine people all agree, that is strong evidence that they are right. Therefore the tenth person will not disagree with them unless he is absolutely sure that he is right. Supposing the nine are all intelligent and expert on the subject? This is even more reason for the tenth person to be absolutely sure of himself if he is going to disagree. Supposing 999 people all agree? The more people that are unanimous and the more expert they are, the less likely you’ll find someone to contradict them. If you do, that person is either a fool or is absolutely certain of his facts.
Homo Sapiens have been around for at least one hundred and fifty thousand years. Most archeologists argue that artifacts, like the Löwenmensch & Venus figurines, and cave paintings from Chauvet Cave from the Upper Paleolithic Period (50 000 – 13 000 BCE) elucidate the systems of religious ideas of the humans in that period. Humans invented writing about five thousand two hundred years ago. The Kesh Temple Hymn of Ancient Sumer is about four thousand six hundred years old. It’s the oldest religious text. There are at least fifty-five sacred texts of various religions and hundreds of gods. Among them are dozens of gods (and patron saints) of alcohol. Please sample a few in the table below.
Humans produced alcoholic drinks in China and the Middle East around 7000 – 6650 BCE. By 5400 BCE there is wine in Iran. By 3000 BCE alcoholic drinks make it to ancient Egypt and Babylon. Come 2000 BCE the buzz hits pre-Hispanic Mexico, and arrives for first-rounds five hundred years later in Sudan.
Sumerian and Egyptian texts from around 2100 BCE mention using alcohol for medicinal ends. In the Hebrew Bible, Proverbs 31:6-7 recommends:
6Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto those that be of heavy hearts. 7 Let him drink, and forget his poverty, and remember his misery no more.
Humans have a rogues’ gallery of fears: Isolation, sickness, thwarted ambition, poverty, suffering, loss, rejection, despair, vulnerability, and death. Understanding human feelings illuminates why our species created alcohol and gods: it functions as systems for coping. Christopher Hitchens’ The Portable Atheist and Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists engage critically and helpfully with how our species uses religion to cope and offer ways how we might cope better in and as a post-religious society. But what about the coping system and industry humans have instituted, maintained, and promoted around alcohol? How does alcohol-drinking function in our society? Who does it empower? Who does it hurt?
How does alcohol-drinking function?
Homo Sapiens are story-telling animals. For the past six thousand years we have been telling particular stories about alcohol. We still tell these stories. We’re trained to believe that civilized people drink alcohol and that to live a fully human life we must partake. This is a salient message in popular culture. We read it in novels, cookbooks, blogs, and see it on TV. It features prominently in the work or reported life-styles of writers, artists, and personalities like Hemingway, Anthony Bourdain, Frank Sinatra, Bukowski, and Amy Winehouse. Stories of alcohol drinking trickle into conversations of masculinity. The Art of Manliness blog wine education series retell the story this way: “Real men drink wine.” Our blockbuster heroes annually include resilient, drinking characters like James Bond, Tyrion Lannister, Jack Sparrow, Thor, Legolas, and Wolverine. The JM Coetzee’s of the world, heroes who do not drink , are rare and rarely emulated.
Humans (excluding teetotalers) use alcohol to celebrate or sedate. Friendship, courtship, business, and forgiveness rituals are structured around it. Its use may reveal virtue, but more readily produces vice. Its effects are disastrous, often fatal: risky behavior, car crashes, liver damage, addiction, diverted dreams, and damaged relationships. George Vaillant observes in The Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study that the single most important factor in all the divorces of the participants in the study was alcoholism. If you and I don’t truly benefit from this system, then who does?
Whose interests does it serve?
Simply ask, “Where is the money, Lebowski?” to answer this question. Who receives power, money, and influence from our reliance on alcohol?
The alcohol industry (producers, packagers, distributors, marketers, merchants, education and certification authorities like the WSET & Court of Master Sommeliers), pharmaceutical companies (medication), the government (taxes, police force), motor industry (panel beating, parts), and insurance companies (policies).
On a personal level alcohol drinking serves the parts of the brain that can’t or won’t accept life as it is, it serves fears, and the worst part of our pattern-forming minds.
Who gets hurt?
Nearly fourteen million people in the USA are alcohol dependent. Every night in Ireland, 1500 hospital beds are occupied for alcohol-related reasons. Al Jazeera reports that South Korea is the country with the world’s worst drinking problem. And yet the stories of drinking that Korean culture tells its members makes it unlikely that they’ll choose abstinence as resistance to domination.
It hurts spouses and children. The USA National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reports that, “alcohol, more than any illegal drug, was found to be closely associated with violent crimes, including murder, rape, assault, child, and spousal abuse. About 3 million violent crimes occur each year in which victims perceive the offender to have been drinking.”
In the Western Cape of South Africa the Tot System exploited farm laborers and set the stage for high alcoholism and high FAS. The scourge continues.
Have you been brainwashed?
A Way Out
Nietzsche’s On the Uses and Abuses of History for Life argues that academics have botched up on how history should be read and what we ought to learn from it. We should not read history in some sort of disinterested way in order to learn how it all was in the past. There is no point of learning about the past for its own sake. The only reason to read and study history is to mine from the rich repositories of the past ideas, concepts, and examples which can help us lead a better life in our own times. Allen Carr’s The Easy Way to Control Alcohol works, too.
The myths and stories of drinking shape the narratives, the narratives shape the rules, and the rules shape society. Lucky for you, the words “authentic” and “author” are related. Awareness of the dominant stories of alcohol drinking empowers us with the choice to write our own stories.