Thursday, April 24, 2014

Camilla Paglia on Alcohol

Camille Paglia is true to form, or as the French would say: égale à elle-même.

Yesterday she took out after the scolds who caused the nation to raise the drinking age from 18 to 24 some thirty years ago.

She writes:

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act, passed by Congress 30 years ago this July, is a gross violation of civil liberties and must be repealed. It is absurd and unjust that young Americans can vote, marry, enter contracts and serve in the military at 18 but cannot buy an alcoholic drink in a bar or restaurant. The age-21 rule sets the U.S. apart from all advanced Western nations and lumps it with small or repressive countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

It makes perfect sense. Yet, Paglia seems to go a bit too far when she blames a series of aberrant adolescent behaviors on a lowered drinking age. 

She believes that today's young people do not learn how to manage their alcohol consumption, and thus tend to drink more than ever. She adds that young people overcome the ban by indulging all manner of drugs, from club drugs to psychoactive medication.

Surely, the observation is correct. The notion that the higher drinking age caused the problems feels like a stretch.

Correlation, yes; causation, not necessarily.

Paglia argues that when children who start drinking at a younger age have a better chance of learning how to drink responsibly.

It doesn’t seem self-evident to me, but allow Paglia to have her say:

Learning how to drink responsibly is a basic lesson in growing up — as it is in wine-drinking France or in Germany, with its family-oriented beer gardens and festivals. Wine was built into my own Italian-American upbringing, where children were given sips of my grandfather’s home-made wine. This civilized practice descends from antiquity. Beer was a nourishing food in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and wine was identified with the life force in Greece and Rome: In vino veritas (in wine, truth). Wine as a sacred symbol of unity and regeneration remains in the Christian Communion service. Virginia Woolf wrote that wine with a fine meal lights a “subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.”

Of course, if one wanted to be churlish, one could note the fate of the civilizations that indulged at bit too much in Dionysian or Bacchic debauchery. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever got drunk on Communion… at least, not in the literal sense of the term.

When pondering ancient Rome and Greece, even ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, “civilized” is not the word that comes to mind.

For Paglia, it’s all about causation. She proposes a list of the ill-effects of the 1984 ban on teenage drinking. Those include an increase in binge drinking on college campuses, which, I don’t need to tell you, produced many more undesirable effects.

Of course, other cultural forces might have contributed. Intellectuals who promoted the glories of Dionysian revelry might have contributed to a culture that saw no ill effects issuing from an over-indulgence in alcohol.

Just saying.

Paglia also argued that the ban on teen age drinking pushed many young people to other forms of drugs:

What this cruel 1984 law did is deprive young people of safe spaces where they could happily drink cheap beer, socialize, chat, and flirt in a free but controlled public environment. Hence in the 1980s we immediately got the scourge of crude binge drinking at campus fraternity keg parties, cut off from the adult world. Women in that boorish free-for-all were suddenly fighting off date rape. Club drugs — Ecstasy, methamphetamine, ketamine (a veterinary tranquilizer) — surged at raves for teenagers and on the gay male circuit scene.

After explaining that binge drinking produces every manner of horror, Paglia sings the praise of alcohol. Of course, she is distinguishing between moderate and excessive consumption, but one wonders how many young people will grasp the subtle distinction.

More tellingly, she compares moderate alcohol consumption, a relatively harmless diversion, with the current mania about taking psychoactive medication.

A country that feels that it is doing God’s work by forbidding young people to drink alcohol has no qualms about stuffing the same young people with Prozac.

In Paglia’s words:

Alcohol relaxes, facilitates interaction, inspires ideas, and promotes humor and hilarity. Used in moderation, it is quickly flushed from the system, with excess punished by a hangover. But deadening pills, such as today’s massively overprescribed anti-depressants, linger in body and brain and may have unrecognized long-term side effects. Those toxic chemicals, often manufactured by shadowy firms abroad, have been worrisomely present in a recent uptick of unexplained suicides and massacres. Half of the urban professional class in the U.S. seems doped on meds these days.

One sympathizes with Paglia’s next point. In the old days young people used to get together over a beer. The practice promoted face-to-face communication. Today, it might help to attenuate the adolescent mania over social media and texting.

She writes:

Exhilaration, ecstasy, and communal vision are the gifts of Dionysus, god of wine. Alcohol’s enhancement of direct face-to-face dialogue is precisely what is needed by today’s technologically agile generation, magically interconnected yet strangely isolated by social media. Clumsy hardcore sexting has sadly supplanted simple hanging out over a beer at a buzzing dive. By undermining the art of conversation, the age 21 law has also had a disastrous effect on our arts and letters, with their increasing dullness and mediocrity. This tyrannical infantilizing of young Americans must stop!

As a description of the life of today’s college students, Paglia’s column has merit. I, for one, would like to think that we could solve all of these problems by lowering the drinking age, but I have my doubts.

Still, I endorse Paglia’s idea that it would not be a bad thing to return the drinking age to 18. I stop short of endorsing her idea that marijuana use should be legalized.

Moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages does not seem to have any long lasting negative health effects. When it comes to marijuana, recent studies have suggested that it does. At the least, the jury is still out.

[Addendum: A recent study points out the positive benefits of moderate alcohol consumption for patients who have kidney disease. Via the Daily Mail:

Researchers at the University of Colorado-Denver found that people who drink less than one glass of wine a day have a 37 per cent lower prevalence of chronic kidney disease than those who drink no wine at all.

And, people who have chronic kidney disease are 29 per cent less likely to also have heart disease if they drink a small amount of wine.
The researchers, led by Dr. Tapan Mehta, used 2003 to 2006 data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey on 5,852 individuals, 1,031 of whom had chronic kidney disease.

Thomas Manley, director of scientific activities at the National Kidney Foundation, said: ‘Similar to previous studies showing that moderate wine consumption appears to impart some health benefit by lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes, this study suggests an association between moderate wine consumption (less than one glass per day) and lower rates of chronic kidney disease.’

Moderation is the key for kidney patients when it comes to alcohol consumption, with a few caveats, he added.

And, to top it off, Yahoo! reports on a recent French study suggesting that marijuana might be bad for your cardio-vascular health:

Young adults who smoke marijuana may be at risk for serious or even fatal heart problems, according to a study by French researchers on Wednesday.

The findings in the Journal of the American Heart Association raises new concerns about the safety of marijuana, just as many parts of the world are relaxing laws on its use and medicinal marijuana is gaining popularity for treating certain health conditions.

The risk of heart complications appeared small in the study, which included nearly 2,000 people who sought medical attention for complications related to marijuana from 2006 to 2010.

Of those, two percent, or 35 people, had heart attacks or circulation problems related to arteries in the brain and limbs.

Of greater concern was the high death rate. One in four of the patients with cardiovascular complications died, said the researchers.

The analysis also found that the percentage of reported cardiovascular complications more than tripled from 2006 to 2010.

"The general public thinks marijuana is harmless, but information revealing the potential health dangers of marijuana use needs to be disseminated to the public, policymakers and healthcare providers," said lead author Emilie Jouanjus, a medical faculty member at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Toulouse in Toulouse, France.

"There is now compelling evidence on the growing risk of marijuana-associated adverse cardiovascular effects, especially in young people," Jouanjus said.]

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