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.