Perhaps the most notable thing about the passing of essayist Christopher Hitchens was not that he retained his atheism to the end, but rather that he retained his love of alcohol. His esophageal cancer, which owes its appearance partially to genetic factors, was not aided by a lifetime of pre-noon scotches. But he never apologized for his drinking. He was born, he drank and wrote prodigiously, and then he died. At no point did he waste time with regret. A clean and sober Hitchens may have been humorless, or perhaps he would have reached Einsteinian levels of insight. Ultimately, his drinking was a choice he made that shaped who he was and how he died.

The choice to drink excessively is becoming increasingly controversial, primarily because alcoholism is considered to be a genetically inheritable disease. In the U.K., Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed legislation to outlaw cheap liquor in an attempt to prevent people from drinking themselves to death. But when have economic sanctions ever effectively modified human behavior? (See: Cuba, Syria, Iran.) If seriously motivated boozers can’t get drunk cheaply, they may just start stealing the stuff.

Booze is the outward manifestation of a person’s attitude, a kind of liquid gauge of mental health. People drink for all sorts of reasons: to quell their sorrow, to soften their rage, to bolster their mood, to stiffen their resolve. The appropriate level of consumption for each person shouldn’t be determined solely by health concerns. People drink too much when neither they nor anyone else is enjoying their company. Dedicated alcoholics, the ones who gradually cut off or abuse all of their family, friends, and income opportunities in favor of a full cut-glass tumbler, are drinking too much. Two fictional examples that come to mind: once-gilded Sebastian, from Brideshead Revisited, and Nicholas Cage’s sad-sack suicide boozer from Leaving Las Vegas. Each of these characters uses alcohol to preserve his misery like a rare specimen in formaldehyde.

So when my mother asks during the holidays, “Do you think Aunt Belinda* drinks too much?” I have to say that it’s a complicated question. Yes, there was the incident with the Christmas tree, which resulted in the destruction of several decorative bulbs and the permanent scarring of a house cat. But there is also my Aunt Belinda’s inspired YouTube mixes and her impromptu falsetto impressions, displays which tend to whither under the harsh sun of unmitigated sobriety.

The majority of Belinda’s atrocious accidents, such as inadvertently water-skiing on her skull while being towed by a motorcycle, occurred in her blank-check youth. She talks about the time she was left overnight in a locked elementary school closet by a neglectful janitor after she’s switched from wine to whiskey, and the time she was cavity-searched by the Vietnam-era Canadian border patrol once the whiskey gives way to Sambuca. But these are not tragic tales. Thanks to the booze, Belinda is able to share atrocities like they were bittersweet chocolates. Whether she’s sitting at the dinner table or hanging out on the floor of a crowded warehouse, she’s always surrounded by laughter, a kind of emotional alchemist, transmuting pain into joy via a bottle of Crown Royal. More importantly, she’s always been able to keep a job. She doesn’t drive drunk, operate heavy machinery, or launch off into vicious personal attacks while under the influence.

Make no mistake–alcohol will kill you. Excessive drinking corrodes the liver, dries out the skin, causes blood vessels to burst and impairs mental function. But much like Christopher Hitchens, Belinda is smart enough to realize that while drinking won’t preserve her health, it may preserve her sanity. Being able to drink to excess when she wishes is the way she has chosen to live, and undoubtedly, it will be the way she chooses to die. All I can do is raise my glass to her.


*not her real name

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JULIA INGALLS is primarily an essayist. Her work has aired on public radio stations KCRW and KCBX and appeared in arts and literature publications including The LA Weekly, Forth and Singular. She is currently working on two book projects: the first is a collection of essays featuring conversations with bestselling authors, esteemed architects, and unusual entrepreneurs. The second is a chronicle of the history and players of the open data movement that will be published in 2013. She tweets @over35million.

28 responses to “A Drunkard in a Pear Tree”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    Oh, David Cameron.

    When will the world realize that we don’t need more humans to live to preserve our species’ economic and climatological experience, we need more people to die?

    It’s unsavory, I know.

    At the very least, we need fewer people to be born, which may, unfortunately, be an argument in favor of Cameron’s proposal.

    Though I’d like to offer another take:

    Outlawing cheap booze only means you’ll deny proper substance abuse to the poor and downtrodden, those who most deserve it at least as a consolation prize, while those in the upper classes will not only have all the money and the land, they will also have all the booze.

    Opposition to this legislation is a job for the 99% if you ask me. It’s class warfare. I have to think Hitchens would agree.

    Besides. They won’t steal it, they’ll make it. Cameron must have missed the day they covered prohibition in American History class.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      “Economic and climatological viability” would make more sense.

    • Julia Ingalls says:

      Becky, I agree with you completely. We differ slightly on the probability of moonshine vs. theft. I once met a man who had stolen liquor because it was too expensive for him to buy. After serving a few years in jail, he hopped a freight train into a life of drifterhood. Zymurgy, on the other hand, requires money and stability. I see Cameron’s law as an attempt to outlaw human nature, which is always a fruitless pursuit. As far as fewer people goes, we do need to rein in our reproduction globally, but I generally find the “people need to die” crowd to be a bit removed from reality. Again, in my experience, it’s only “other people” that need to die/stop having babies, never the group advocating the population decrease. Convenient, no?

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well, I meant it as a grim acknowledgement of the futility and pointlessness of trying to stop people from killing themselves, and I am careful to never say who should die, in part because the nihilist in me doesn’t believe it matters.

        But the necessity of a decreased or at least restrained human population isn’t exactly a matter of advocacy or opposition, either, is it?

        It will happen. If we don’t do it, nature will do it for us. That’s what happens when there are too many of something and resources turn scarce.

        But while we, as a species, put off confronting this difficult topic indefinitely by saying no one is qualified to comment unless s/he wishes to volunteer for death or sterilization, let us get to the important business of denying some poor schmuck his gin-up.

        That’s all I’m saying. What a waste of time it is for lawmakers to busy themselves with this kind of thing. I suppose it’s possible it is born from good intentions, but it represents such an outrageous convolution of priorities that I have to believe it is simply meant to distract, annoy, and occupy people.

        It can’t take too much money. Or too many people with much money. All you need is someone with some minor stability who is willing to sell illegal brew on the cheap to broke drunks, and the effect is the same. My point is only that where it is not legal to make and sell cheap booze, it will simply be done illegally. Maybe England’s entrepreneurial spirit isn’t as rabid as America’s, but this seems to be the lesson of the history of controlled substances, in more than one case.

        Though I should mention that my impression of prohibition-era moonshiners (and contemporary moonshiners) was never that they were a wealthy bunch. Maybe I am mistaken.

        On the whole, I agree with you, I should say. About discerning between drinkers and alcoholics.

        • PJB says:

          It is by turns surprising, irritating, and maddening when I read essays on the death of Mr Hitchens that describe him as alcoholic.

          He was NOT. I’ve been in the D&A business for many years, and I can tell you without fear of reprisal that alcoholics
          are people for whom alcohol causes serious and ongoing problems in their daily lives. I entreat anyone to come up
          with an example where this was the case with Hitchens. By ALL accounts, he was a hard-working writer who NEVER missed a deadline, never missed appointments, provided very well for his family – I could go on. Alcoholics lives are not like that. They suffer horribly, daily. Their lives become utterly unmanageable. Alcohol becomes the most important thing in their lives. Mr Hitchens was prey to NONE of these symptoms – and that’s exactly what they are; symptoms of the disease of alcoholism.

          There is no denying that Hitchens was a man who much enjoyed his cups, but an alcoholic? There is ZERO evidence of it.
          Further, there is likewise no evidence whatever that Hitchen’s drinking had anything at all to do with his esophageal cancer.
          In fact, the only possible link between alcohol and cancer – and it is still argued – has to do with the liver.

        • Julia Ingalls says:

          Lawmakers and their misguided practices merit an entirely separate essay! You make excellent points. I agree that our current global political leadership does not seem inclined to solve actual problems, but rather kick up a terrific dust that keeps us blinded to reality. Unfortunately, I suspect that overpopulation will “solve” itself before we ever manage to have a civilized debate about it. All the more reason for unfettered access to alcohol.

    • James D. Irwin says:

      Hello. As and Englishman, and someone who has in the past spent vast amounts of time drinking, I’d like to way in. I also strongly dislike our government, so I do not make this statement in a blind fog of patriotism.

      When I first heard about Cameron’s proposals I swore, called the man an idiot, and prattled on with the usual references to ‘1984’ whenever the government does anything.

      However, having looked at it more closely I am leaning towards being in favour of the proposal (it is not a ban). I think Becky, that your prohibition arguement is invalid because of this.

      Our government does not want to ban alcohol completely— therefore there will be no dangerous moonshine brewing in bathtubs around the country.

      To call it class warfare, or whatever, is stupid and ignores the fact that alcohol will still be available to all, whenever they want to drink it. People are not going to be priced out of the drinking game.

      Britain has an incredibly dangerous and irresponsible drinking culture which encourages the sale of high alcohol, low price booze and the excessive consumption of it in a way that crosses the line from mere human nature to actual physical harm— which has a knock on effect. More and more young people are being admitted to hospital with liver complaints and alcohol related disease. This burdens our health system, which is already collapsing as it is.

      The Conservatives proposal is to put a minimum cost on units of alcohol. Where once I was outraged, now I am not. I am a now responsible drinker, and never drink much more than five pints on any given occasion.

      What Cameron wants to put a stop to is youth binge drinking culture, and a society that encourages it. For example, if I wanted to I could go to a local shop and buy two litres of strong cider for £1.50. And people do do that. They do that before they go out, and then there are all sorts of bargains and offers to entice you into bars and keep you there until you pass out.

      I’m not making a moral judgement on this behaviour, although I do think it is moronic, dangerous, and uncivilized and unpleasant for everyone else who wants to walk down the street without a soundtrack of screaming teenagers. But if that’s what they want to do… what’s going to stop them?

      Cost. Now, here’s the thing… here’s why putting a minimum cost on units of alcohol MIGHT be a good idea. Of course it might not work, but I don’t think it would be the worst thing in the world.

      When I go out I only have so much money. I live in quite an upmarket area of England. It’s very upper-middle class. This effects my drinking. Part of the reason I don’t drink as much as I once did is because I’ve grown out of getting drunk for fun, but part of it is the simple fact that I can’t afford to. By the time I’ve had five pints I’ve spent over £15. I can’t afford to drink after that, because I’ve run out of money.

      If this principle works amongst more reckless drinkers, than the legislation will be a success. Part of the motivation for drinking is human nature, but it is facilitated to a dangerous level because with high-volume shots, alcopops, and spirits all a fraction of the cost of a single pint, and all drunk much faster you see people getting a lot more alcohol for their money.

      Furthermore, we’re not just talking in simple terms of class. It’s ridiculous to think that only the working class binge drink. If there are any sides, it’s more an old vs young arguement. But even then, there are dangerous levels of drinking amongst older people.

      Nobody is banning anyone from drinking, and this country has seen millions of pounds spent on campaigns to encourage a more responsible attitue to drinking. Guess what? That didn’t work in the slightest. Now, if Cameron was acting purely to oppress the proletariat I would be against it thoroughly. I’m not actively FOR it, but I can see the sense and need for some positive action to be taken.

      It could be argued that it’s not for the governement to intervene, but who else is going to? It’s highly unlikely everybody is suddenly going to wake up with a new found sense of maturity and social responsibility.

      It may prove ineffective— it almost certainly will in fact, as I suspect many people will have the same slightly hysterical reactions to the tiniest threat to their Bacchanalian self-destruction— but to simply cry ‘class warfare’ and rally against the proposals is to ignore a much wider social problem in favour of petty, trivial class divisions that don’t actually exist.

      In conclusion, we will not see a rise in exclusive, membership-only drinking clubs where only the wealthiest and most powerful can enjoy Snakebite, shots of Green Cactus, or the exclusive selection of cheap imported lager. We will not see streets lined with oppressed, gin-starved workers with pockets jangling with the loose change for booze that will never come. We will not have the first days of a violent class war where the only thing brewing is communist revolution…

      We will simply be living in a world with reasonably priced alcohol and marginally less liver disease. You said drinking was part of human nature, and I agree. It is an important part of socialization. It is human nature to drink, which means we do not need any encouragement. What this legislation is, is a halt on the practice of supermarkets and bars encouraging and facilitating an urge which is already there, and taking that natural desire to dangerous levels.

      I don’t like disagreeing with you— it’s a dangerous place to be (and I mean that with respect, my fear is of your intelligence). I wouldn’t step, but for the fact that I have taken an interest in this legislation, and I have the natural advantage of first hand experience with British drinking culture. At least three of my friends have had their stomachs pumped because their own irresponsibilty was enabled by being able to purchase a significant amount of drink at pocket money prices…

      • Becky says:

        I’ll ask you not to call my remarks “stupid” again, but after that, I’ll say my commentary was in large part meant to be humorous.

        But if you want to get humorless about it, I don’t think your experience makes you any more qualified to comment than anyone else. You are not the only young person living in a binge-drinking culture who has had close calls and know people who have had even closer calls. The situation is no different in the U.S. And from this experience, I have drawn this: If people want to drink to excess, they will drink to excess. If people want a death-defying high, they will get it, if not from booze, from something else. Regardless of cost, regardless of legality. This is more my point in mentioning prohibition, not there will, in fact, be a rise in moonshining. I mean to call bullshit on the notion that legislation can have any particular effect on an addict’s or a young person’s determination when it comes to catching a buzz. History has consistently proven otherwise.

        But in my opinion, from an ideological, philosophical, and theoretical standpoint, it is not the government’s job to stop people from being reckless with their health on any front, and if it IS their job, it must be their job on all fronts. That is, their job when it comes to each and every reckless behavior there is.

        This is one of the arguments against nationalized health care in the U.S. That it gives the federal government too much traction in terms of dictating what citizens do with their health. That they can use that system as an excuse to limit liberty & start socially engineering preferred behaviors (I’m loathe to say ‘healthier behaviors,’ since I don’t think they’d necessarily need to be. The government would just have to assert that there is some kind of cost involved that could be eliminated).

        People think the suggestion is paranoid and absurd but fail to realize that it already happens all the time in the very form of the argument you just described. “It costs ‘the system’ money.” And by those inches piled on inches, feet are lost.

        I have to wonder what it costs the government to enact and enforce such legislation as well.

        So, you know, my general feeling is that if that logic is going to be applied, it ought to be applied consistently, not arbitrarily. If an end to cheap booze, why not greasy food? This may mean an end to your beloved English breakfasts. Or maybe just extremely expensive English breakfasts.

        • James D. Irwin says:

          I apologize— ‘stupid’ wasn’t really the right word, and it referred only to terming the legislation class warfare. I don’t often engage in serious debate, but I knew I would get an interesting and intelligent response from you. ‘Stupid’ was deliberately provocative, and your initial assertion stood without any real explanation.

          Having now read your reasoning I will apologize unreservedly for calling the arguement stupid. I see your point, but I still disagree with you. I really don’t think class is that much of an issue— it’s a factor, certainly, but I believe age and maturity is more important. If anything it is the teenagers from wealthier, more privileged backgrounds that are more of a problem. I don’t want to bring unsourced statistics into my arguement, but I do strongly recall reading that the rise in alcohol-related hospital admissions is higher amongst those from middle class backgrounds.

          I would disagree, with regards to the differences between US and British drinking culture, although going only from what I’ve seen in films, it is becoming increasingly similar. I did not wish to imply that I was any more qualified to comment on the issue from my position, although by using ‘advantage’ I almost certainly did. I simply meant that my perspective would differ, and be more favourable towards the legislation. I would like to retract the awful air of pomposity with which ‘..the natural advantage’ is saturated.

          I felt that your whole point of view was built very much on seeing the issue as a black-and-white ban on alcohol, but as you have demonstrated your perspective was in fact far wider than my own from the start. You make an excellent arguement, and generally I agree that it is not up to the government to intervene with the private lives of the public.

          Can I ask your views on two issues which are similar, but not wholly related. I don’t ask in an attempt to score points, or to try and undermine your arguements (if anything they will probably serve to weaken my own position). But i would be interested to know your views on:

          1. Public smoking bans. I am against public smoking bans, for the same reasons of civil liberty and public freedom. This actually makes me question my own unfirm position regarding drinking legislation. How do you feel about the government stopping us from smoking in public places?

          2. Drinking on the underground. One of the first things the Conservative Mayor of London did was ban the consumption of alcohol on tube trains. I feel Cameron’s legislation fits more into this camp than the smoking ban. It’s point was to make the tube trains feel safer, less intimidating, and cleaner. I can now see that this could be taken as an almost facist retraction of civil rights, but I see it more as an enforcement of social safety— a good move, regardless of whether one considers it the government’s place. I’d like to know if you opinion is the same on this issue.

          I suppose it depends on your view of the government to some degree, and the cynicism of the individual. I do not blindly trust, or support the government (I have in fact written student articles viciously attacking them), but I don’t take their actions as phase one of an evil plan— and yes, I know I’m phrasing your arguement as a sarcastic extreme. It’s not meant antagonistically. I won’t deny that the dangers you outlined exist. But this is typical of Conservative policy (and I am not for a moment implying that it is acceptable because it is what they always do). The Tories tend to place a more meddling hd in thing, for better or worse.

          I disagree with your consistent application of logic. You are right of course, that it does pave the way for other measures, such as greasy food. And in fact legislation has gradually been put in place to fight the growing problem of obesity— especially prevalent in young children. Nothing major— the banning of adverts for McDonald’s and other snacks being the most notable. My view is that whilst this could be the potential for the beginning of government sanctioned censorship, its intentions are good (and in a wy fights against capitalism). I don’t think it has sinister overtones.

          I think logic can be applied arbitarily in the instance of drinking, as it is a unique issue of legal drugs which have an effect on their immediate environment. It’s depressing to see an overweight five year old, but ultimately he’s not likely to commit an act of violence. And I am NOT saying that all drunks are violent, but it would be foolish to ignore the dangers some drunks pose. A drunk driver is more dangerous than a fat driver. I’ve been challenged to fights by drunks, and it is really quite unpleasant and unnerving. Other people are attacked. There is statistical evidence linking excessive drinking and violence. When innocent bystanders are affected, one has to ask if there really isn’t a line that has to be drawn. People can’t be trusted to act in a publicly responsible way, and I don’t think it’s fair to expect society to put up with out of control indivuduals in the name of civil liberty. I think it goes both way, with rights. We have to respect the rights of others. And nobody is stopping anyone from drinking— they are simply trying to keep it under control.

          Of course you could respond that these issues don’t matter— it’s not up to the government. Regardless of the state of society, it is not for the government to dictate our lives. And the issue I have is… I do agree with you in many, many respects… but I genuinely feel people should be protected. I agree with bans on fast food advertising because I don’t want to see children die of heart disease. And on the same theme I don’t want to see people killing themselves. Maybe that’s blinkered, and possibly selfish. If people want to neglect their children’s nutritional needs, or poison themselves every other night of the week then they should be allowed to have that choice… But if an attempt… any effort, however futile it may be… it should be taken…

          It would be nice if people could take responsibility, but they can’t. The human race, in general, is a bit pathetic. We live in a world where people drive to shops within walking distance, and insist on carrying digital entertainment with them wherever we go. We are not a responsible society— the price of our progress is, to a large extent, apathy and individualism.

          I don’t think the government should, generally, get involved— unless the situation desperately requires it, and I think in this instance it does. Libertarianism is a wonderful idea, but it relies on individual responsibility… and that’s asking a bit much of most people…

          • Becky Palapala says:

            That’s just it!

            It’s a bit much to ask of people who are accustomed to relying on ever-increasing governmental nannying to protect them from themselves. Why think, why worry about repercussions, if you’ve learned that it’s the government’s job to outlaw anything dangerous.? Surely if it’s legal, why then, it’s probably safe and we ought to do it! And if we do it and are harmed, we can just say it was their fault for having failed to restrain us!


            The “drunks likely to become violent” thing is interesting. Many moons ago, when the world and I were both much different and I still identified as a Republican, I was staunchly against the legalization of any drug at all. The “drugs turn people into violent criminals” argument was among my favorites. It was also among the weakest, since the illegality of the drugs contributed to the illegality of the behaviors associated with it.

            Of course, you’re not talking about an outright ban and by your own assertion, people will still be able to get plenty drunk, just for significantly more money. So I’m not sure how violent drunks will be prevented from getting drunk and/or violent as a result of this. They will just be less able to pay back their bail bondsmen when it’s all over.

            I suppose the difference between public smoking bans, outlawing drinking on public transport, and this particular regulation is the word “public.” I do not like smoking bans, even now as a non-smoker. I think private entities should be allowed to do what they want in their spaces, whether business or residential. I still adhere to the notion that people who do not like second hand smoke should steer clear of smokers. It is no one’s god-given right to walk into someone else’s space and tell them how to arrange it. If I’m allergic to your cat, I should not go to your house, not tell the government that your choices are harming me and could they please make cats illegal. Even if I would really like to be able to go to your house. If it hurts me, I should stop fucking going there already.

            Likewise, it stands to reason that the government ought to have control over its own spaces, and indeed, they have a responsibility to protect citizens from each other (especially vulnerable citizens, like children) within reason, but the price hike is intended to be prohibitive in public and in private and is, as you suggested earlier, meant in large part to protect people not from each other but from themselves.

            In this case, I would liken it more to mandatory seat belt laws, which I have categorically despised, always, not because it is some major impediment to human rights or that I think people should not wear seat belts, but because from a theoretical standpoint, it’s the purest instance of government protecting people from themselves and only themselves.

            No one stands to come to harm but me if I don’t wear a seat belt. There is no public justification for it whatsoever. Yet legislators have inserted the public hand into it.

            In the case of roving bands of drunken teenagers and drunk driving and these kinds of things, there is a public aspect, but that is not what’s targeted. This targets the drinking, period, regardless of where it takes place or who’s doing it.

            I suspect extreme public intoxication and the various forms of violence associated with it are already illegal, right?

            I mean, there’s a bit of a trap here. Either this legislation will significantly alter people’s drinking habits in both public and private, and therefore represents a significant act of economy-based social intervention, or it’s not that big of a deal, represents no real intervention of consequence, and is therefore nothing but wasteful legislative busywork.

            I’m not sure how taxation works in GB. Is sales tax determined by a percentage of sale? Might higher liquor prices be inspired, in fact, by the knowledge that people will continue to drink what they want, but higher prices will siphon more revenue towards the government? I’m not sure how it’s a blow to capitalism. The government and corporations (the government is perhaps the biggest corporation) are all just guys with more money and power than you and whose existence is dependent on you voluntarily ceding power and money and agency to them.

            It is cynical. It is absolutely cynical. I am unapologetic when it comes to my cynicism about government because government and the politicians that make it up are necessarily in the business of self-preservation. With very few exceptions (if any), neither will do anything that threatens its own necessity.

            Of course, it is unlikely that this one piddling law means the difference between freedom and tyranny. But the national mindset that holds the government as a benevolent overlord and looks to the government as as to a boss rather than a servant really is just one bad election away from ending up with evil overlords and a lot more problems than just expensive cider.

            In the more immediate, though, price-fixing booze strikes me as incredible micro-management that will raise corporate profits, government taxes or both, and it doesn’t seem to me to be to any significant or appreciable end (and almost certainly failing to address whatever is actually causing people to binge), though it would set a precedent for people to cite as they look to justify further social engineering projects.

            • James D. Irwin says:

              I am now quite tired, and I’m going to try and draw this debate to an end, if you don’t mind. I am aware that this smacks of someone running away, or giving up… and I suppose I am in a sense… but it’s late, nearly one in the morning and I have a feeling if I don’t we could be here all week… But I have enjoyed this— in conversation with Duke he referred to me as being ‘in battle’. I didn’t like that, as it implies a level of competition.

              My opinions are still largely forming and changing, and far less certain than your own convictions, and I lack the intellectual capacity to back them up, let alone attempt to keep up with you. And as it’s all too easy to read remarks, especially when complimentary in the middle of a debate, as sarcastic or snide.

              I am being totally sincere, and I believe I have told you before that I consider you perhaps the most formiddable person I know on an intellectual level. It has therefore been a pleasure to be engaged with you in an intelligent debate which has forced me to think in a manner which I am rarely required to do.

              I read this— your last comment— some time ago, and these are some of my thoughts…

              For the most part, I do actually agree with you. I think I said from the start that I didn’t support the legislation totally, that I was leaning in favour of it. I am both fairly young, and not terribly well informed… I don’t often find myself in situations where I am required to offer opinions or defend my position. My perspective is probably more than a little shaky, and with a naive optimism that is almost the polar opposite of your cynicism.

              However— and I may be wrong in thinking this— but the legislation proposed does not benefit the government in terms of tax. Now, even if this is correct, I’m sure you will point to a way in which it does. My understanding of the issue with regards to ‘price fixing’ is merely a law on the minimum cost for each unit of alcohol— that is to say, putting a stop to the practice of undercutting prices… selling high volume liquor for less than the market price.

              Now, I’m sure this won’t change your mind, and certainly doesn’t change the arguement. I’m simply trying to lay out my knowledge, and hopefully explain why I am hesitantly in support of it. If it was a case of banning cheap alcohol— the actual drinks themselves— then I would be one hundred per cent on your side of the fence. You could probably argue that there isn’t a difference between the two, and you may be right— perhaps one just seems more fascist than the other.

              I used to be much more cynical, and I can’t think why on Earth I’ve changed. I’m glad of it, but cynics are important. And when it comes to the government, thinking the worst of them will more often than not prove a sage standpoint…

              I agree with you completely, regarding smoking… cat ownership… public spaces etc I think anti-smokers are really quite fascist. I almost want to smoke, just to annoy them.

              I disagree with you on seatbelts though. That just makes sense… and if one considers the road government property then surely it is within their interest to stop people befouling it with their traffic accidents? I don’t know how well that stands up, and I am obviously trying to use your own arguement regarding public transport against you. I DO see you ideological point of view, to a degree… and I suppose my own disagreement is a knee-jerk reaction to an attitude which, at first glance, seems a touch cold. But then I suppose logic and reason are naturally cold…

              You are right to suggest that drunken violence is illegal, but I don’t quite follow your argument. The legislation does target the drinking— of course it does. The violence is the sympton, and so the drinking must be the cause. But it is important to draw the line between drinking and excessive drinking. At the risk of going around in circles, the aim of the law as I understand it, is to make irresponsible levels of intoxication harder to achieve.

              I know little about tax laws, but I believe I’ve been through this in this comment… i.e. I think your line of thinking here is perhaps overly cynical. It’s more a matter of fixing the minimum unit price… it may be naive, but I think most alcohol will remain at pretty much the same price. Of course maybe I’m wrong, and maybe the government does stand to make a financial gain. If this is the case, then I would adjust my comment to call you ‘rightly cynical.’

              I agree with you probably much more than these exchanges convey, and I would dearly have loved to have had this conversation in person, and no doubt carry it on for far longer…

              I think this is all I have to say on the matter without repeating myself. As I’ve said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this (although I can’t help going away feeling as though I’ve ‘lost’ somehow). But there’s no shame in losing to a superior opponent— if we are to take Duke’s ‘battle’ metaphor. Is metaphor the right word? Probably not.

              I doubt you will have time to respond before I wake up tomorrow, although I shall be up a while longer. I don’t doubt that you will have some sort of response, and I very much look forward to reading it…

              • Becky Palapala says:

                Well, I for one don’t feel entrenched in any kind of battle.

                I just don’t understand how, if the actual price of alcohol won’t actually change much, the law could even possibly fulfill its expressed purpose, the will of people to become recklessly intoxicated notwithstanding.

                How is it even worth the cost of the paper its written on? And if it will change the price of alcohol enough to be prohibitive (or inhibitive), it’s social engineering that’s bound to have the greatest effect on people with less money, no? I mean, whether they’re young or of a lower class or both?

                This is what I mean by a trap. If you argue that it’s no big deal and will have no real effect, then it’s tough to justify the proposal’s existence. If you argue that it will limit people’s ability to become drunk–enough so to justify itself–then you’re faced with questions about government’s right to stop people from getting drunk.

                Anyway, wearing a seat belt hardly prevents accidents or the sullying of roads. Whether or not I wear a seatbelt has zero implications for anyone but me (maybe my family if I die. That’s about it). And while it is indeed true that they have the authority to create such laws (they must as it has already been done), that’s not the question. They question is whether or not they should and what justification is sufficient to limit my prerogative with regards to my own health and well-being, not just in the matter of seat belts, but any matter. The justification that has been historically sufficient is when limiting individual liberty protects the liberty (generally in terms of safety) of innocent others. Increasingly “it costs ‘the system’ money” is seen as acceptable, but arguably, there are few personal liberties that don’t cost ‘the system’ money in a society where ‘the system’ is charged in too large a part with the individual financial and mortal maintenance of its citizens. This is why asking government to maintain us except as is absolutely necessary is dangerous in the first place.

                I suspect our difference of opinion, stems to some degree from the fact that I’m American. It is kind of our thing to be rabidly defensive of even the smallest individual prerogative.

                This is less and less true among Americans, though, which I think is profoundly unfortunate, but the fact of the matter is, in the cost benefit analysis, many people are simply willing to give up freedom of choice in exchange for not having to make decisions for themselves or have their own financial and mortal maintenance fall to them. My concern, in the long term, is that when you offer people a lot of power over you, there is a very good chance they will eventually take it. Which, as you say, brings us pretty much full circle.

                In terms of violent drunken acts already being illegal, I meant that if public violent and/or unruly drunken acts were the main target of this proposal, I would expect to see a proposal that targeted public acts instead of, broadly, individuals’ ability to purchase the alcohol at all.

                I was noting that laws targeting those acts already exist, so this proposal must be about much more than that.

                • James D. Irwin says:

                  I’m glad— neither do I, for the record. And I only feel slightly out of my depth…

                  I suspect your right— you have me at check mate, I think. It is somewhat impossible to argue against you here. I don’t want to anyway, because I think you have persuaded me to your side of the debate.

                  I imagine you’re probably right about being American as well. I always get the impression that political ideals and convictions are much stronger and more fierce in the US. That is no doubt a generalization of course… but I think we Brits are a little more submissive towards our leaders… not too submissive, but generally more passive…

                  I would like to state that I have been meaning to argue the line not that the legislation would work, but that it wasn’t neccessarily a bad things. This is clearly not a hypothesis that stands up to scrutiny, and you have quite convinced me that the plans would not have any real effect on the problem they are intended to curb.

                  I agree also, on your points the willingness of individuals to sacrifice freedom of choice. I swing quite freely between an almost anarchistic attitude towards government and the ingrained British idea of respecting authority, whether they deserve it or not. It all comes down to fair play and sportsmanship… To draw a barely relevant cricket analogy, players are required to abide by the umpires decision without question— of course this position assumes that the the umpire is without bias, and has no hidden agenda. But as we know, most politicians are not sportsmen, and often do have designs on abusing their power.

                  In my more cynical moods I think society would run better without government, and with individuals reliant on themselves.

                  But I think in Britain we have a natural urge to be lead… and one could argue that you can’t trust a politician any more than a stranger, and at least when they’re in government the bad eggs are in one basket and have an eye kept on them…

                  I feel somewhat as though I am arguing with both feet in constantly shifting sands, and I know my opinions would have differed two years ago, and will likely change over the next five or ten.

                  I expect I shall probably continue to think about these issues long after this exchange of comments comes to an end.

                  You seem to be arguing from firmer ground, which I envy only slightly, and aspire to greatly. Or, in other words, this has been incredibly interesting and enlightening. I would like to thank you for dignifying my arguements with with considered responses, rather than dismissing me as the idiot I almost certainly am. It has been a pleasure.

                  • Becky Palapala says:


                    Were it only that everyone act as English as you, Irwin, at least in terms of argument. I’m reasonably sure this civility is entirely your doing, since it’s certainly not my default M.O.

                    Hooray to us for not stinking this up.

      • Becky says:

        And of course, the “if not the government, then who?” Argument has an answer that is increasingly unfashionable, as the comment itself implies.

        The answer is that individuals must be responsible for their own behavior and for helping to protect their friends and loved ones from harm and death. If they are not willing to do these things, to bear such responsibilities, then consequences come. This strikes me as a no-brainer. But I am a heartless, emotionally rudderless Libertarian and milquetoast anarchist, so feel free to write me off. Most of my countrymen do.

        My general perception, however, is that the trick of government intervention is that the more there is, the more people tend to think they need. The measuring stick keeps changing (over years, but more like decades), so the object itself–governmental meddling or, conversely, individual agency–appears not to change.

  2. PJB says:

    By the way, I’m aware that you made no claims about Hitchens being alcoholic – your very interesting essay just got me thinking about all the other ones that did and do describe him thusly.

    • Julia Ingalls says:

      Thank you for your comments, and your informed definition of alcoholism. I also am irritated when Hitchens is described as an alcoholic. It seems we need a culturally updated vocabulary when discussing how and when people choose to use/abuse substances.

  3. I’m a 47-year old man whose life was shredded for years due to his simple misfortune of being the product of two alcoholic families. Now sober for several years, I chair detox and rehab meetings on a weekly basis here in Phoenix. I have some thoughts:

    1. I’ve never heard of Hitchens being described as an alcoholic, but losing jobs is not a pre-requisite. I know he drank and smoked a lot. Alcoholics can be furiously successful workers who don’t miss deadlines.

    2. Your third paragraph describes reasons why people drink to excess. If one is alcoholic, they have a mental obsession to drink, and a phenomenon of craving that insures they will drink more once they start. The reasons you outline in that paragraph still apply, but underneath it is something much more simple and unnerving.

    3. Becky your comments about the consolation prize and Prohibition were funny and totally accurate. People never learn from Prohibition. And yeah, there are way way way too many people here. Exhibit A: Southern California.

    4. On a lighter note, yes Hitchens may have been humorless without it. I don’t know if he was alcoholic, but either way, we need more people like him.

    5. About ten years ago I read a compilation of C-Span/Booknotes interviews that had a chapter on Hitchens and had a photo of him sitting at a bar, smoking, and pounding out his stuff on his laptop. It’s funny that this topic has come up, because for years after that I would think of that photograph. I thought holy shit, how does he do it? I can barely form a vowel. Writing the way he writes while drinking what appeared to be martinis. But then again, the list of creative alcoholics that I admire who were able to create while drinking is a long one. If he was alcoholic, he was superhuman.

    The best place to be as a recovering alcoholic is to literally be grateful that it got you. Much of the time I actually feel lucky to wear the scarlet A. I am much more empathetic and compassionate then I feel I would be otherwise. Sponsoring other guys through the steps is by far the bright spot of my life. When I chair a detox meeting I know that only one in 20 may get it but somehow in the process of giving it away my life unfurls before me in a manner that is so glorious. Almost beyond words.

    This was a great post. It made me think. Thanks!

    • Becky Palapala says:

      It may be what the social/economic reform protesters really need. The Occupy movement ought to back it. A booze ban might be the only thing that would get the working class ginned-up enough (pun!) to act significantly against do-nothing governments and hollow ideologies that traffic primarily in lip service and rubber stamps.

      There is my “if I were to be involved in a conspiracy…” for the day. I’d choose this one: To destabilize and bankrupt runaway government, encourage it to take away people’s whiskey.

    • Julia Ingalls says:

      Pete, I agree with your comment that “underneath it is something much more simple and unnerving.” Human nature is composed of equal parts uncertainty and blind longing. For some people, it seems booze helps reconcile the two like an 80 proof referee.

  4. Gary Socquet says:

    Julia, you eloquently crystalized the essence of my second most maligned beloved pastime, and you did so with an economy of language I wouldn’t have believed possible. Much appreciated, especially as I am just now heading out to grab a good seat for Amateur Hour. I’ll be the guy who’s still coherent at closing time, in spite of what the night will surely bring. Because, dammit, it just feels good. Happy New Year.

  5. pixy says:

    i’m wholly comforted in the fact that alcohol price legislation will never pass in the US. here, they use alcohol as a tool to keep the poor poor and/or make the poor poorer.

  6. A good example…

    Now here is one more illustration of exactly what Louis was raving about…

  7. The “D0 is an exact match to the HP plotter that I use.

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