Ambitious Brew is about beer, so I've spent much of the past five years thinking, directly and indirectly, about alcohol and its place in our lives — and about the people who yearn to halt the manufacture, sale, and consumption of alcohol.
When the book came out, I expected an onslaught of tirades from the anti-alcohol crowd. Something along the lines of "Ms. Ogle glorifies alcohol." Or "Ogle encourages under-age drinking by praising rather than condemning the makers of booze."
So far there's been none of that. I'm relieved, but surprised: the current neo-prohibition movement is powerful and well-organized, and rarely misses the chance to attack drink.
This coalition of activists, who operate under an umbrella composed of MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) and CSPI (Center for Science in the Public Interest), are chipping away at Americans' right to drink, using the "abuse" of alcohol as the rationale for their crusade.
I find it hard to take them or their cause seriously.
In the United States, we "enjoy" the drinking culture we deserve. We have no one to blame but ourselves for binge and under-age drinking and "drunk" driving — and groups like MADD and CSPI are part of the problem, not the solution.
We adults, including the people at MADD and CSPI, demonize alcohol. We teach children to fear rather than respect its properties. (That is, when we bother to teach them anything at all, alcohol being part of the triumvirate of unmentionables: money, sex, and booze.)
As a result, kids enter adolescence with no idea how to drink, when to drink, or when to stop. Hormone-riddled, rebellious teenagers testing the waters of freedom and independence jump at the chance to wallow in the illicit pleasures of booze. Denied legal access to the satanic elixir, they resort to law-breaking and subterfuge to get it.
The results are predictable: lacking experience in the art of imbibing, young people drink themselves stupid and drive themselves and others to death. Every year, tens of thousands of young adults celebrate turning "legal" by drowning their bodies in toxic quantities of the stuff. Some literally drink themselves to death. Then they become adults and parents and repeat the process with their own kids.
"Fetal Alcohol Syndrome" (FAS) has become the device by which pregnant women are frightened into avoiding alcohol. If an obviously pregnant woman is seen sipping a drink in public, it's a safe bet that a total stranger — armed with the self-righteousness of the FAS armor — will march over to her table and harangue the drink right out of her hand.
Never mind that the researchers who "discovered" FAS grossly (and apparently deliberately) overestimated the incidence of the syndrome. Never mind that the only documented cases of FAS involve women who consumed massive quantities of hard liquor on a daily basis for years before becoming pregnant.
Never mind, of course, the most important point: the sheer illogic behind the anti-drink crusade.
Alcohol has been humanity's constant companion for about 12,000 years, but potable drinking water is only about a century old (and most parts of the world still don't have it). For millennia, men, women, children drank alcohol daily because it provided the safest way to ingest the fluids needed for hydration.
From the time of the Romans on through the eighteenth century, people used distilled liquor to treat everything from upset stomachs to headaches to diarrhea. Colonial Americans regarded alcohol as one of god's "good creatures," a nutritious balm for body and soul.
As recently as a century ago, doctors routinely prescribed beer for pregnant women and nursing mothers. Many women around the world still follow that regimen today.
If alcohol inflicted the sort of damage that critics claim; if it were as dangerous to pregnant women and fetuses as some scientists argue, then the human race would have died out millennia ago.
But here we are. Obviously something's wrong with the logic — or with our attitude toward alcohol.
Are some people genetically wired in such a way that alcohol presents a danger to their bodies? According to current research, yes.
Are some people simply stupid about alcohol? Absolutely!
We can't do much about genetic-based alcohol aversion, but we can do something about the stupidity factor.
Why not turn the youth-and-booze equation upside down? Instead of bombarding kids with messages about the evils of alcohol, why not introduce them to its pleasures, preferably at home in the presence of their parents?
Teach them how to savor rather than gulp fine beer, wine, and liquor. Explain that the vast majority of adults don't abuse booze (and according to recent studies, those who do may be genetically programmed to do so).
Imagine: reasoned, balanced information in the media and the classroom, and first-hand experience at home. Taken singly, either would go far toward demystifying alcohol; taken together, they announce that alcohol is a fact of life, and nothing to get bent out of shape about.
Strip alcohol of fear and mystery, and the problem of binge drinking, under-age drinking, and drunk driving might go away.
Books mentioned in this post
Maureen Ogle is the author of Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer