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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Beer Is Not Political

Beer, innately apolitical, finds its way into politics on a fairly regular basis. Our country's revolution was fomented in Boston's Green Dragon Tavern, over pints of cask ale. Cool. But in 1923, Hitler tried to use a gathering at the Bürgerbräukeller, a Munich beer hall, to overthrow the government. Not cool. You see, it's not so much that beer favors one political view or another, but that as the people's drink, it is regularly present when the disaffected are plotting rebellion. It's an accelerant, you could say.

Well, in today's column, George Will says more. He uses beer as a prop in a fairly standard conservative description of society, describing it as "essential," and borrowing beer's natural street cred to bolster his. He takes a fact that you probably already know--beer was useful in preventing disease in the middle ages because to make it brewers boiled the water--and then goes in a slightly odd direction:
To avoid dangerous water, people had to drink large quantities of, say, beer. But to digest that beer, individuals needed a genetic advantage that not everyone had -- what Johnson describes as the body's ability to respond to the intake of alcohol by increasing the production of particular enzymes called alcohol dehydrogenases. This ability is controlled by certain genes on chromosome four in human DNA, genes not evenly distributed to everyone. Those who lacked this trait could not, as the saying goes, "hold their liquor." So, many died early and childless, either of alcohol's toxicity or from waterborne diseases.

The gene pools of human settlements became progressively dominated by the survivors -- by those genetically disposed to, well, drink beer. "Most of the world's population today," Johnson writes, "is made up of descendants of those early beer drinkers, and we have largely inherited their genetic tolerance for alcohol."

Johnson suggests, not unreasonably, that this explains why certain of the world's population groups, such as Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, have had disproportionately high levels of alcoholism: These groups never endured the cruel culling of the genetically unfortunate that town dwellers endured.
Beer, he concludes, is health food. To drive home the point, he launches this unprovoked broadside: "And you do not need to buy it from those wan, unhealthy-looking people who, peering disapprovingly at you through rimless Trotsky-style spectacles, seem to run all the health food stores."

For Will, the history of beer is one that perfectly confirms his conservative worldview. Man is innately competitive, and there are winners and losers. This is natural and wholesome, because the winners must surely hold advantages intellectual or at least physical, that aid survival. It is the same principle that guides the free market, which he extolls in his lede: "Perhaps, like many sensible citizens, you read Investor's Business Daily for its sturdy common sense in defending free markets and other rational arrangements."

Will is entitled to his political worldview, but please leave beer out of it. This is causality run backward to justify love of beer. But as a confirmed commie who also loves beer (I suspect I love better beer than Will, but that's another post), I could easily run a tale of causality backward that shows how the communal nature of beer supported the development of political systems devoted to cooperation and equality. In the town tavern, we are all equal before the beer. So it is with democracy. Marx and Engels were German, after all. Coincidence?

(I could even trace this thread backward and launch a specious attack on native Americans. You see, since they lacked beer, they lacked pubs, natural democratizing public spaces, which of course meant they never developed democracy.)

Let us happily drag beer into our politics, but please, let us not drag politics to our beer.


  1. Well, there's another way to look at it:

    Will is arguing, albeit indirectly, that alcohol has been a friend to humans for millennia, and hey, we survived daily consumption of the stuff.

    In doing so, he's demolishing the illogical, irrational neo-prohibitionist argument that alcohol is evil, that it's "bad" for us, that pregnant women ought not drink, etc.

    And hey, didja notice that he fell for the bogus Franklin quote????

  2. Sure, George, roughly half of Pacific Rim Asians have difficulty in metabolozing Acetaldehyde, leading to rapid intoxication. It's not like their population is growing robustly or anything....oh, hold on.

  3. He's sort of arguing that, but it's through a very dense filter of conservative political ideology. As a reader of Will's for 15+ years, I am quite familiar with his market filter. For Will, everything looks beautiful through the lens of individuality and free competition. Since I was so familiar with this story, his weird warping of it stood out.

    Yeah, I caught the bogus Franklin quote, but couldn't figure a way to elegantly include it in the post.

  4. Darn it, Jeff. You've penned too quality a piece. Hours later, I'm still thinking about it.

    You said "let us not drag politics to our beer."

    But in fact . . . haven't you and many others already done precisely that?

    Your blog, for example, is devoted to a particular KIND of beer: craft beer (as opposed to "corporate" beer, for lack of a better term).

    In your daily life, too, you're devoted to "good" beer, rather than "bad" beer. Which, again, I'm guessing you define as craft rather than otherwise.

    And isn't that itself a kind of politics??

    I ask, of course, in the spirit of friendly discussion (and procrastination: with any luck, I'll manage to avoid facing another hour of the mess that is chapter one of the new book I'm writing....)

  5. And isn't that itself a kind of politics??

    Well, it's true that all human endeavors are fraught with internal politics. But I'm going more for the sense of, to refer to Webster "the art or science concerned with winning and holding control over a government." From the Greek polītikós, modeled on Aristotle's ta politika "affairs of state."

    To argue about the best beers is certainly a political game. But to bring beer into the football concerned with winning or holding control over a government--that's a different matter altogether.

  6. I dunno about the Native Americans… I've heard tale of a certain type of gathering called a "pow-wow," often heald around a "peace pipe." Seemed to work pretty well for them… until the alcoholics showed up and ruined the party.

    Different drugs for different thugs…

  7. Pipes in Native American culture were generally loaded with tobacco or kinnikinnick, it's worth noting....