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Booze: Been There. Done That.

H_l_mencken

Our research assistants have unearthed the following guest column by H. L. Mencken which appeared in the New York Times of 5 Nov 1933, the date at which Prohibition ended in the United States. As a public service we are reprinting it here.

I’m particularly impressed at how the Sage of Baltimore buttressed his article with references to the latest scientific literature of the time. I think you’ll all agree that Mencken’s column, in which he took a stand against the legality of alcohol consumption, has contemporary relevance, more than 80 years later.

Because of the challenge of interpreting decades-old references, we have asked a leading scholar of Mencken’s writings to add notes where appropriate, to clarify any points of confusion. And now here’s Mencken’s column (with notes added in brackets), in its entirety:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank alcohol. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up booze. [Editor’s note: according to Wikipedia, “booze” is an informal term for an alcoholic beverage. It is possible that, by using this term in his column, Mencken was attempting to connect to young readers by employing this slang expression. A modern-day analogy would be if a fiftyish columnist today were to use the word “weed” in reference to cannabis.] It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.

We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that drinking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.

I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I sipped one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.

We gave it up, second, I think, because one member of our clique became a full-on drunk. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into alcoholic life. [Editor’s note: it is possible that Mencken was referring to himself here.]

Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that drinking booze doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). [Editor’s note: it is not clear what Mencken meant by “more or less,” but perhaps this relates to the difficulty of measuring funniness or creativeness. Recall that the studies alluded to by Mencken were performed nearly a century ago, in the era before Barris et al. (1977) had perfected the funny-meter.] We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. [Editor’s note: Mencken forgot to mention the pleasures of sarcasm. But he was a famously busy person. I think if he’d had time to revise his column, he would have added this.]

One close friend devoted himself to track. [Editor’s note: I think he meant to say “crack.”] Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature. [Editor’s note: it is possible that Mencken was referring to himself here.]

Finally, I think we had a vague sense that drinking booze was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire. We were in the stage, which I guess all of us are still in, of trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This process usually involves using the powers of reason, temperance and self-control — not qualities one associates with being drunk.

I think we had a sense, which all people have, or should have, that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little more or a little less coherent. [Editor’s note: “a little more or a little less coherent??? I simply cannot figure out what Mencken was trying to say here. Perhaps this was just one of the days when he was being a little less coherent.] Not drinking, or only drinking sporadically, gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it. [Editor’s note: This particular passage should be particularly interesting to Mencken scholars, as it is the columnist’s only known use of the phrase “cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center.”]

So, like the vast majority of people who try drugs, we aged out. We left alcohol behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets drunk from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being drunk is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.

We now have a couple states — Colorado and Washington — that have gone into the business of effectively encouraging drug use. By making booze legal, they are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One random study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. Colorado and Washington, in other words, are producing more users.

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.

In legalizing booze, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. [Editor’s note: we can appreciate Mencken’s dexterity in mixing the slang expression “booze” into a philosophical discussion of “moral ecology.” Modern-day newspaper columnists would do well to imitate this sort of bourgeois-bohemian sensibility.] But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be. [Editor’s note: given Mencken’s very public support of alcohol prohibition, we are surprised that he did not support the prohibition of tobacco and cannabis as well. Not to mention 16-ounce soft drinks.]

Walter Lippmann is off today.

All this makes one wonder whether a modern-day columnist of Mencken’s stature—someone like David Brooks—would support prohibition of alcohol, tobacco, or any other recreational toxins.

40 Comments

  1. BenK says:

    Fascinating. It is also interesting that the idea is to be a “temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship” but the advocacy is for government from above rather than self-government. At issue is the limits of virtue and, I would suppose, temptation. I think HLM has tied together the ideas of virtue and happiness, which partly avoids the question of whether the government should be aiming for happiness directly or virtue. These questions get deep and wide pretty quickly; too much for a comment, certainly.

    • Mike says:

      What a judgmental and ridiculous article full of nonsense and propaganda, which I will waste exactly zero time debunking, because there is a giant corpus of empirical evidence regarding adult use of pot, and if you’re ignorant of this corpus, your bias is showing and since this was a lazy post, I don’t feel like edumacating you either.

      Ignorance is bliss right? Ignorance apparently makes you feel superior and obliged to moralize to the rest of us inferiors. Right? Far be it for me to disrupt and interrupt your blissful ignorant existence.

      Here is an idea: how about you stick to what you know and leave morality to our persons.

      Especially when you do such a piss-poor job of moralizing.

      Also, comparing David Brooks to Mencken? Really? Another utter failure of this post.

      Comparing David Brooks to Mencken is like comparing a 2014 KIA Soul®™ to a 1936 Duesenberg SSJ. A Non sequitur, an oxymoron, a fallacy.

      But the tripe-clap-trap you wrote it strikes me that, you are exactly the type who reads Brooks and is proud of it.

      Indeed, you most likely enjoy and attempt to glorify Thomas Freidman’s perfidious posts as well.

      Here’s another idea: Don’t think you’re a good writer and don’t feel obligated to post, stick to writing about what you marginally know.

      Get over yourself, get off your high horse and quit while you’re ahead.

      Be humble.

      • Dane says:

        I think that maybe this response is the greatest example of “holy cow did you miss the meaning of the article” I have ever seen on the Internet.

        Here’s a subtle hint Mike: Maybe you should try clicking on a few of the links.

  2. “One close friend devoted himself to track. [Editor’s note: I think he meant to say ‘crack.’]” – actually, I think he meant “track,” as in “track and field” or “track running.” Seems odd to rail against booze and present crack as a good alternative. Interesting find, either way.

  3. K? O'Rourke says:

    Apparently???

    http://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/17/books/mencken-s-diaries-sustained-by-scorn-and-beer.html?pagewanted=3&src=pm

    “All day yesterday – the first day – we tried in vain to get some beer. This morning, having given up all hope of getting any help from the hotel staff, I tackled a taxi driver and he took us to a low dollar-a-day hotel in the region behind the railroad station.”

  4. Rahul says:

    This is sarcasm so elaborate it needs explanation.

  5. Dean Eckles says:

    Perhaps also interesting:
    “his inner Eddie Haskell was deeper down than the pot could get”
    http://www.garygreenbergonline.com/w/?p=449

  6. Phil says:

    This is so obviously not Mencken, or even an attempt to sound like Mencken, that I couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be. If it’s supposed to be a parody of Mencken, shouldn’t it be at least a little tiny bit Menckenesque? By the midpoint I was pretty sure of what it was, and by golly I was right.

    The best part by a mile is “Walter Lippmann is off today.”

  7. […] influence of marijuana. Those costs might give other states pause. While some make the analogy with booze, the better analogy may be gambling in terms of regulation. While we see some expansion there, it […]

  8. Noah Motion says:

    Gah! You tricked me into reading a David Brooks column! That’s a low-down, Bayesian stunt to pull, Dr. Gelman!

  9. Matt says:

    Wow, great idea. Now we can keep subtlely putting Blacks in cages for non-violent crime.

    This will appreciably increase the property values of our property-owning overlords.

    Thanks Mr. Brooks. Keep fighting for WHITE POWER.

  10. jonathan says:

    Lovely. Thanks. I can relate to a little more or a little less coherent.

  11. Chris G says:

    You had me going until “Colorado and Washington”. (Honestly, I thought the term “uninhibited frolic” went out with Mencken’s generation – maybe even a bit beforehand.) Tip of the hat though, that last link was better than a rickroll.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    In Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, Samuel L. Jackson comes home one afternoon to find Bridget Fonda watching TV with a bong in her hand. He upbraids her, telling her that marijuana will steal her ambitions.

    “Not if your ambition is to get high and watch TV,” she replies.

  13. Chris G says:

    As entertaining as Brooks’ piece is, it would have more so if the subject had been his opposition to same-sex marriage. Keep the structure and 98% of the text and apply Find & Replace accordingly. The raw material is all there: “uninhibited frolic”, the lunchtime indulgence that left him speechless for English class, “most of us developed higher pleasures”. It just needs some light editing.

    • Rahul says:

      The article makes such great boilerplate for so many different causes.

    • Andrew says:

      Chris:

      You write of David Brooks’s “opposition to same-sex marriage.” But in this column, Brooks expresses strong support for same-sex marriage: “We shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. . . . It’s going to be up to conservatives to make the important, moral case for marriage, including gay marriage.” This column was published in 2003, placing Brooks several years ahead of Barack Obama in his support of marriage equality.

      • me says:

        Ah, but was that the ironic, disembodied-from-conservatism-but-not-exactly Brooks talking, or the bad satirist Brooks talking, or the April fools day Brooks talking, just the plain dumb conservative Brooks talking?

      • Chris G says:

        Well, that would explain why he wrote about marijuana instead;-)

        I was reading Brooks’ column purely in terms of its comic potential. His columns are awful. The only reason to read them is for their comic potential or to see whether achieved Friedman-leve self-parody.

        Why is Brooks awful? Matt Taibbi’s criticisms are more articulate than my own so I’ll outsource:
        1) http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/taibblog/same-sex-marriage-makes-david-brooks-crazy-20130402
        2) http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Tdq5FH4c5EsJ:trueslant.com/matttaibbi/2010/01/18/translating-david-brooks-haiti/+&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us&client=firefox-a (Read the “p.p.s.” section in particular. Google “Matt Taibbi David Brooks Haiti” and look for the cached “Translating David Brooks” post for TrueSlant if the link doesn’t work.)

        Also, Sasha Issenberg’s takedown of Brooks’ “reporting” is a classic: http://www.phillymag.com/articles/booboos-in-paradise/

        The two Times columnists I read are Krugman and Egan. (Occasionally Roger Cohen. I miss Bob Herbert.) Krugman often makes reference to Very Serious People (VSP). Brooks is the architypal VSP. He’s all about truthiness – as opposed to truth. His columns are about reiterating things that like-minded VSPs “know” to be true (but aren’t) and rationalizing a “I’ve got mine so @#$% everyone else.” outlook on life. For readers who take him seriously [* see note below], his columns serve the purpose of enabling them to continue living their existence as self-satisfied pr@#$s. Taibbi’s translation of “The Underlying Tragedy” is particularly pointed in calling this out. (Brooks’ columns are the antithesis of “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”)

        Why do I see comic potential in rewording Brooks’ anti-weed column as an anti-same-sex marriage piece? Bear with me for a moment… Well, what’s the VSP angle on marijuana? I’m going with “Yeah, we may have indulged a little when we were in school but now we’re responsible suburbanites so don’t partake. That’s just not something responsible people do.” Brooks is reassuring VSPs that perspective is the appropriate one for mature adults. He normalizes youthful indulgences by ‘responsible’ people while implicitly criticizing the same indulgences by… by whom exactly? People other than his VSP audience, presumably, but let’s go to the text: “I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being stoned is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.” Well, Dave, just who are those somebodies who get high from time to time? Hmmm… I guess that’s left as an exercise to the reader. (This is what Taibbi refers to as a “between-the-lines message with dog-whistle clarity” in his Translating David Brooks post.) Anyhow, where I see comic potential is that I suspect that there are limits to what VSPs consider acceptable “Yeah, I did it too. We were just crazy kids.” youthful indulgences. Weed? Sure. Switching teams? Probably not. Actually, I’m less amused by the thought of Brooks writing such a column than I am by the thought of his loyal followers picking up the paper, turning to his column expecting to be reassured in their beliefs and then going “OH MY GOD!” upon reading it.

        * Does Brooks actually have readers who take him seriously? I know people who take Friedman seriously – even some who take Will seriously. I don’t know anyone who takes Brooks seriously. Everyone I know who reads him does so for the opportunity to mock him.

        • Andrew says:

          Chris:

          I think that Brooks, like all of us, has his good days and his bad days. I appreciate his openness—indeed, his willingness to express himself, even if it makes him look foolish. I am still annoyed with him, though, for not running a correction after mainstreaming some false statistics that had an anti-Semitic slant. I don’t fault Brooks for promoting the erroneous numbers the first time—after all, everyone makes mistakes, indeed, the article he was citing look authoritative enough that I too believed it on first reading. But there’s no excuse for not running a correction, once the error has been pointed out to you.

          • Chris G says:

            Andrew,

            I’m not so charitable – probably because I can’t recall catching him on a good day. Brooks may be a nice guy personally but as a columnist he’s contemptible. (The Underlying Tragedy is particularly bad it’s hardly 99th percentile bad.) My reaction to Bobos in Paradise was “He almost gets it.” but it’s been downhill from there. What his body of work says to me is that he doesn’t give a damn about intellectual honesty and that his primary concern is being perceived as a good villager. It also tells me that he’ll choose truthiness over truth if that’s what’s required to remain a villager in good standing. Mainstreaming false statistics? [/sarcasm] Hey, who’s going to remember a few bits of obscure wonky stuff in a couple months anyway? [/sarcasm] Intellectual honesty matters and I don’t see much of it from Brooks.

            PS Sorry to sound pissed off. I just really dislike Brooks.

            • Andrew says:

              Chris:

              Sure, but he could be much much worse. Imagine, for example, if the authors of the book reviewed here had their own weekly column!

            • Popeye says:

              Here is a completely reasonable, insightful, intelligent column that David Brooks wrote a couple of years ago.

              • jrc says:

                “No one would design a system of extreme supervision to prepare people for a decade of extreme openness.”

                Brilliant! Does he just change his mind every day? Or does he not think of the prison/judicial system as “extreme supervision”? Well…I guess by incarcerating non-violent drug offenders we aren’t pretending to prepare them for anything except more incarceration, so: future college graduate –> less coercive disciplinary power when young; future drug user –> more coercive disciplinary power when young.

                You think he looks at a kid and just knows which one they’ll be? and for the large majority of college-kids-who-will-use-drugs-someday-at-least-a-couple-of-times he just flips a coin?

  14. Bucyrus says:

    While Mencken had many odious views on race and the lower classes, he actually supported the repeal of prohibition. Wikipedia quotes this 1925 column by Mencken (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Repeal_of_Prohibition) :

    “Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.”

  15. Eli Rabett says:

    The Hunter Thompson version of this at Popehat

    The silver 2001 BMW 535i roared through Adams Morgan, occasionally screeching over the sidewalks as my accountant wrenched both hands from the wheel for another toke at the weed-pipe. “Gadzooks, man!” I shouted. “Can you keep it together for another fifteen miles, or at least outside the District limits?” We were halfway through our 35 mile journey from Bethesda to Falls Church, with enough dangerous narcotics to stun a grizzly bear in the trunk: We’d started with nine ounces of weed, six rocks of crack, a sugar jar full of blow, 36 vicodin tablets, a cage filled with live Bolivian arrow toads, and two jars of ketamine. Plus two quarts of Beefeater gin, a case of Schlitz malt liquor, and a four ounce ball of Afghan hash: Surely enough to get this pair of degenerate drug addicts to Fall’s Church. After that what man could say?

  16. […] think that’s why he’s doing it. I think he’s just trapped in a cage and doesn’t even realize it. He’s internalized the values of his profession. The academic equivalent would be those […]

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