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WSU and the Beer Rebellion:

A Wider View*

*Reprinted and slightly revised, with permission, from The Voice (June, 1998, p. 5), Silverton, Idaho.

    Washington State University isn't the only college where some students have recently taken their protests about tightening campus alcohol restrictions to the streets.   Similar outbreaks have occurred for instance at Michigan State and the University of Akron.   And though the automatic inference most of us might draw from these events is that university officials must be facing a new generation of particularly ardent collegiate boozers, my hunch is that something quite different is going on, something that must be understood in a wider context of American cultural history.  Here's my take on the key dynamics.

    First of all, and according to most indicators, American attitudes have been moving in a more temperate or more restrictive direction regarding alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs in recent history.  Sociologist David Warner's recently published book, The New Temperance, takes a crack at trying to explain the cultural sources of this remarkable and unexpected historical change.  Whatever its sources, however, the statistical indications of long-term decline are clear enough:  U.S. per capita alcohol consumption has been falling since the early 1980s, a fall in illegal drug use started in the late 1970s, and cigarette consumption's fall started all the way back in the late 1960s.

    The subtle but key cultural fact about these declines is this: of the three classes of euphoriants in decline (liquor, smokes, and dope), alcohol has been something of a weak sister in this national new-temperance drift.  Non-smoking restaurant sections and "Thank You For Not Smoking" placards may dot the interior landscape, and the occasional car displays a D.A.R.E. anti-drugs bumpersticker, but shifts in sentiment toward alcohol have taken a different and more indirect form.  Unlike the 19th and early 20th century--when Demon Rum was far-and-away the most attention-getting of the three euphoriant commodities -- nowadays, anti-tobacco and anti-drug enthusiasms are significantly stronger.  "Why?" is a very good question.

    One reason surely lies in our enduring national remembrance of the fiasco of Prohibition (1920-1933), with its well known images of rampant gangsterism, bootleggers, rum-runners, bathtub gin, and all the rest.  Another reason is that drinking is the only majority behavior among the three -- roughly 65% of Americans drink (at least once a year), while smoking and illicit drug use are practiced by much smaller fractions of the population.  Alcohol has also received health-related good news in recent years -- in studies, for example, reporting that moderate drinking may lengthen life.  Both the popularization of the red-wine "French Paradox" by CBS newsmagazine, "60 Minutes," and the U.S. government's decision to upgrade alcohol in official dietary guidelines published (by a joint committee of the Dept. of Agriculture and Health and Human Services) in January, 1996 have familiarized many Americans with moderate alcohol use's potential health benefits.

    The alcohol beverage industry, moreover, seems to have avoided the secrecy and legerdemain that has characterized the tobacco industry in recent years.  The beverage industry also seems of late to have upped its expenditures on ads urging safe use of its product.  (The illicit drug "industry," of course, has no legal corporate entity whatever, and so lacks the legal industries' -- alcohol's and tobacco's -- big-bucks counter-counter-advertising budgets to contest new-temperance claims and pushes for higher taxes or greater controls -- though small but significant anti-War-on-Drugs and pro-medicinal-use-of-marijuana movements continue to try to attract popular support.)   Last, but certainly not least, alcohol's long and embattled cultural history in the U.S. translates into the simple, but important, fact that news about excessive drinking's risks and hazards just isn't news anymore--and hasn't been news for a long time.

    What's all this got to do with the WSU unpleasantness?  Hold on, I'm getting there.

    Argument by metaphor is always risky business, but I'd like to invite you, the reader, to think of big and broad social changes like the "new temperance" shift as something as vast as the earth's tectonic plates, movements of which generate earthquakes at their edges.  The "cultural" tectonic plate of the "new temperance" shift has been frustrated, I'm arguing, vis-a-vis alcohol in American society, but the force and pressure driving anti-tobacco and anti-drug measures is also pushing hard against John Barleycorn, as well.  That anti-alcohol pressure has to go somewhere, but where?

    One good answer, it turns out, is that it flows in the direction of the nation's youth and youthful drinking.   Once again, there are credible reasons for this.  Alcohol is, of course, an illegal or illicit substance for underage consumers, thus making it more like illicit drugs for that population segment.  Moreover, youth are symbols of our nation's future, and hence cultural pressure on their drinking, in particular, can serve as a kind of symbolic substitute for social-change advocacy with frustrated broader-scale ambitions.  Finally, and alas, youth are in a weak political position to resist such attentions, especially when new-temperance pushes derive, as I've suggested, from deep and powerful shifts in the wider society's cultural undergirding.  David Wagner, whose book I've mentioned above, might even argue that the new-temperance theme has emerged partly out of an attack, or counter-attack, on youth culture, per se -- in a slow-developing backlash against counter-cultural excesses of the Sixties generation.

    Especially college fraternities, with their keg-party traditions and male-bonding ethos, lie at the cultural fault-line of this big tectonic-plate-like push.  Not surprisingly, they've become the point of maximum cultural pressure at which to expect the sort of cultural "earthquakes" that have shaken campus life at WSU, MSU, and Akron in recent weeks.  The new-temperance assault they've faced is daunting indeed.  Especially over the course of the 1990s, college drinking has been attacked by an increasingly determined onslaught of new-temperance pressures -- (a) from the emergence and spread of campus "prevention" offices and professionals, (b) from the articulation of new and more restrictive "policies" and campus-focused federal and state legislative efforts, and (c) from the widening reach of new rhetoric about the seriousness of campus alcohol-related problems.  Recent deaths from alcohol poisoning have further fueled such enterprises, though no one in the campus prevention movement is likely to report how the total number of such deaths may stack up against other campus killers like suicide, sports-related accidents, or non-alcohol-related mortality in general.

    One of the intriguing hallmarks of the spread of anti-alcohol rhetoric is the press given the high percentage of "binge drinkers" on college campuses.  This term has been popularized for years, as it happens, by a prevention researcher at Harvard who does surveys of campus drinking.  "Binge drinking" conjures up lurid images of non-stop drinking over many hours and even across separate days.  It may suggest drinking that doesn't cease until the drinker lapses into unconsciousness.  Yet, and in fact, this researcher's operational definition for binge drinking (and by now the standard definition in this field of research) is 5 or more drinks per drinking occasion for males and 4 or more for females.  In other words, a Saturday  afternoon-and-evening-long party on the deck of a frat house, covering perhaps several hours, during which Joe College consumed five beers or Jane College consumed four would label them "binge drinkers" in this research.

    I'm no great fan of drunkenness (or riots), whether in adults or college students.  But it seems to me that our love of fair play and our high value on accurate information should alert us, the adult population that is ultimately in charge of this society of ours, that the recent alcohol eruptions on college campuses are better characterized as responses to newly restrictive pressures than as pro-active expressions of a new generation's committed to boozy excess.   The ongoing cultural push for new alcohol temperance, one that has been largely frustrated in the adult world, has become funneled and focused on campus life.  The change that has taken place is not (according to most indicators) an increase in fraternity boozing but instead a significant tightening in official regulation and attention paid this old frat-culture tradition.  That a segment of the frat-rat pack would ultimately fight back should probably not have been entirely unexpected.

© 1998 Ron Roizen


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