Attitudes toward alcohol in this country have always seemed a little extreme to me in the several years I’ve lived here. Reading the Daily’s editorial last Friday arguing against the limited introduction of alcohol at Northrop Auditorium, I thought of some very different attitudes that have developed in the last few years in Great Britain, my country of origin.
Recently over there, the government decided to reverse laws prohibiting children under the age of 16 from entering pubs. This was part of an attempt to change the nature of pubs, to lead them away from the days of sawdust-covered floors, where burly blokes would gaze lustfully and menacingly at anyone not wearing a beard. Such places were already rare when the laws were changed, but since then, pubs have opened up to a wider clientele. If you go to a pub in Britain these days, especially in the countryside, you’re more likely to find crayons for kids than spittoons, and many a beer garden now has a McDonald’s-style play area in the corner.
In effect, the wall separating alcohol from the rest of daily life has been dismantled. This doesn’t mean people drink more, but it does mean that some of alcohol’s sting has been lost because the stigma attached to it eroding. Previously, when alcohol was secretly consumed behind closed doors, it possessed a mystique that was more likely to lead to giddy infatuation — the kind of infatuation that expresses itself here in the form of waking up on a Sunday morning in some fraternity’s flower bed, with no idea how you got there.
Allowing families into pubs is a way of moving alcohol from this realm of anti-social behavior back into the mainstream. It ceases to be something that can only be drunk by the gallon with a spectacular loss of self-respect and becomes something you can sip for moderate pleasure after a day out with the kids.
University President Mark Yudof’s decision to allow alcohol in Northrop, although most likely stemming from financial motives, would be a similar move. There is a strong tendency over here toward separation, toward drawing a line between alcohol and absence of alcohol, in a kind of zoning of social life. Such divisions rely on specious generalizations such as “alcohol is bad,” and “absence of alcohol is good.” One of these lines encircles the University of Minnesota campus, and it was Mark Yudof’s attempts to cross it that led to the Daily’s negative editorial on Friday.
When it comes down to it, of course, alcohol is both good and bad. It can eat up our organs, but it can also help keep our hearts pumping. It can lift our spirits but can also lead to misery and violence. We cannot realistically confine it to these binary oppositions. But nor should we try, for the more we idealize the absence of alcohol, the more dangerous the presence of alcohol becomes. And if we stopped demonizing alcohol, it might not cause all the problems we attribute to it, because it is not so much alcohol itself as our approach to it that determines how dangerous it is.
If we are taught that drinking has no middle ground, we are not going to find moderation when, sooner or later, we come face to face with alcohol. In the case of Northrop, I have a hard time imagining the “drastic change” for the worse that will, according to the Daily, arise from adding “a mixture of individuals unable to control their drinking.” I try in vain to remember all those people who disturbed the performance by falling off their seats the last time I went to the Guthrie, who couldn’t help throwing up in the corner and whose stains on the floor would embarrass me if I took my grandparents there.
And the option to buy alcohol at Northrop’s events doesn’t make alcohol necessary any more than the option to buy T-shirts at a concert in Target Center means my evening will be a hopeless failure if I don’t buy one.
Instead, Yudof’s idea might just help to show that alcohol and responsibility can coexist. To reject his idea is to deprive every one of us a chance to get used to alcohol as a drink and not as an obsession. It is to suggest once again that adults — students and nonstudents — are unable to handle the presence of alcohol. For in the end, the only result of this patronizing discourse telling us over and over again that “we are not responsible enough to be able to cope with alcohol” is that we are less able to cope with alcohol.
Ian Offord is a graduate student in the Department of French and Italian. He welcomes comments at [email protected]