#36 Drinking alcohol like them
Why do we insist on glamorizing "how Europeans drink"
This week I meant to write about me following the advice I gave in this advice column I wrote for Substack (“Writing like it matters”), but then I read an article last night about drinking alcohol in the U.S. vs. drinking alcohol in other countries, and it fired me up a lot, and I wrote this instead.
The article I read was from a publication I like (Substance), and was titled “Alcohol is the worst drug (when Americans drink it)”. I read it and I sighed because nothing hurts my body more than good people doing good work getting basic ideas wrong and furthering problematic tropes, like if we just drank like French people we’d be fine.
The article is paywalled, and in case you can’t read the whole thing, the gist of it is that alcohol is specifically problematic in the United States, and this is because of our puritanical/colonial roots, the war on drugs, prohibition and its resultant “drink to get drunk” attitudes, and I agree with all this. I agree when drugs are policed—be it criminally/puritanically/culturally/or socially—it generally leads to more consumption of said drug. I agree that the yawning chasm between puritanical asceticism and hyper-materialism creates this extremely weird and singular situation (“Binge drinking culture is a perfect manifestation of the historic tension between puritanism and excess.”)
What scratched at me about the piece was the overall assertion that there is less (problematic) drinking in “Europe” (which has no unified culture of drinking or drinkings norms, think Ireland vs. Hungary vs. Portugal vs. Italy) because of differences in Europe’s attitudes toward alcohol, lack of a history of prohibition, lower drinking age, lack of puritanical influence, etc.
These are, of course, factors in why American’s drink differently than the rest of the world; but they’re also oft-used over-simplified explanations that lead us to think we (American’s) should just drink “responsibly” (and moderately) like our European counterparts, or loosen up and let our kids drink, and leave out the larger complexities of the issue of why we drink the way we do in North America. And these are also the explanations most people who don’t want to examine deeper and complex cultural issues, or their own potentially problematic relationship with psychoactive substances, cling to.
If you’re wondering why there are lower rates of alcohol addiction in countries that seem to drink it all day, like Italy, it’s not alone because of attitudes or drinking ages or whether or not they had Speakeasies. You have to look at the entire picture of that society, the whole map of it, just like you have to look at the map of an entire individual to understand how/why/when they became addicted. In Italy, for example, where rates of addiction to alcohol are much lower than the US, there’s socialized medicine, longer parental leaves, a wholly different kind of support for childcare, prioritization of living life over work and actual measures to enforce 40 hour work weeks, multi-generational homes and the strength of the family unit, and on and on and on. Italy and Spain—two countries with the lowest rate of alcohol addiction and two countries along with France that are always the ones we look at and say “We should drink like that!”—not only have lower rates of alcohol addiction, they have higher quality of lives and longer life expectancies. A lot more is going on there than it being normalized for a ten year old to drink wine with supper, or how slow they sip.
I’ve been a part of enough conversations, such as ones at Notre Dame with students who are totally immersed in American binge drinking culture, about how if we followed the “European” model (drinking younger, drinking throughout the day, drinking slower) we would not have alcohol addiction the way we do in America. Whenever someone says something like, “if we just lowered the drinking age and normalized drinking in America like the Italians do we wouldn’t drink our fucking faces off” or the like, I always think, sure. But then you also have to also go live in that country, and have been enculturated there, for it to be any kind of comparison. One has to live within the context, with all its benefits and pressures and correlations and causalities to truly make any meaningful inference. We cannot just extract a few rules from Italy and Spain and expect them to translate across severely different cultures, or infer that if we just followed the lead of a few strikingly exceptional countries, we’d fix issues completely inherent to the culture we exist in.
Another thing to consider: rates of addiction, even within our favorite examples of countries cool about wine, are going up throughout the world. In part due to Covid, but also in part because of the exportation of American style capitalism, the globalization of America’s very unique and severely extractive free market system. An incredible read on one theory of addiction that is specific to North America is The Globalization of Addiction, which posits the kind of capitalism practiced here in the far west is part of why our rates of addiction are so disproportionate to the rest of the world, but also points out the rest of the world is catching up.
The point is, we should absolutely change our attitudes toward drug taking a la Dr. Carl Hart and Dr. Thomas Szasz and do what we can to terminate puritanical judgments we have about addiction and the use of substances (and all substances) in general. We should incorporate harm reduction strategies that are just as valid as abstinence models and normalize people using drugs who are in recovery! We should decrim all drugs!! And at least a hundred other things, like expose media’s influence on early consumption, or I don’t know, provide health care to everyone and child care to everyone and basic social supports and like, food. And while we’re at it not refuse pregnant women addiction treatment? But no, we should not try and be like the fucking Italians, or the “Europeans”. The idea is more French Paradox, more wishful thinking; it doesn’t account for what we’re too lazy to account for, which is that addiction is an extremely complex issue that requires nuanced and complex solutions. As I have said here many times: there are no quick fixes, easy answers, or simple explanations, and it because we, as a society, refuse to grasp this that we suffer.
Finally, a disclaimer on all this. This is a reaction essay; I didn’t research it, I wrote it from what I know and links I was already aware of (I googled like two things). Meaning, this isn’t a well-researched thought piece I spent days on. I wrote it in two hours. Take that into consideration plz!
Ten Things Right Now
Books I’m reading, books everyone read in 2022, books we should have read before 2022, the best podcast I’ve ever heard, remembering the magic of this world, revisiting Languishing, how to not regress into your adolescent self, fuck the rich films, sober(-curious) roundup.
I told you last week about my new fave podcast Philosophize This! but then Stephen outdid himself with this episode on Guy Debord and the Society of the Spectacle; the entire 40 minutes blew my mind into pieces just like that one emoji and reinforced, for instance, my decision to not be on social media right now (or possibly ever again), and to keep resisting the belief that just because it appears everyone is doing something you need to be doing it too. I am of the firm belief that evolution is furthered by those that don’t do what everyone else is doing; most of my time has been exploring what the leading edge is outside the echo chambers I exist within, thinking about what comes next, and this was a really fresh perspective (from the ‘60s). His episode on Simone Weil was also SO GOOD.