Category Archives: U.S. politics

Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life-

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modération a bien meilleur goût» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.


Game, Drama, Fashion Show, Media Event?

Austin, my current hometown, was host last night to the kind of event which gets national coverage. This time, 43,436 people tried to attend the event but only a hundred of them got selected. There were also 400 tickets for around 18,000 UT students who had entered the lottery.

Contrary to what one might guess, the event was not about Longhorn Football. Although, one of the protagonists in last night’s event, a basketball player, did visit UT’s famous team.

The “post-game analysis” makes it sound like a match between two sports teams.

Interestingly enough, it’s a mixed sport, making it easy for journalists to use pronouns to distinguish players in the two teams. One source described the night’s event as possible end game for the team led by a woman:

After losing a string of contests to [him] over the last several weeks, she is running neck-and-neck with him in Texas, according to some polls, a state in which she previously had a commanding lead.

One might think it was a fashion show:

the gold piping on her raised black collar and pockets gave her a martial, commander-in-chief look (the very model of a modern major general)

But I also get the impression that it was a theater premiere, with one source describing one actor’s “classic ‘I-feel-your-pain’ finale” meant to go to watchers’ “heads and hearts.”

In the end, the event was mostly “media event.” By the media, for the media, of the media.

Most likely, it won’t change the dynamic of this race, though the true effect of it will be determined by the media coverage around it: Should it get replayed over and over on television, it just may have an impact on this race and could stand out as the debate’s most striking moment.

So, I’m a bit puzzled by the whole thing.

Techno-President Hopewood

Not that I do political blogging but this guy has intriguing ideas.
Tech Mogul Ray Hopewood in Bid for White House

Defining Useful Information

From pizza orders to baby showers.

Army Squeezes Soldier Blogs, Maybe to Death –

The new regulations (and their author) take an unusually expansive view of what kind of unclassified information a foe might find useful.

Closer to Fair Use Codification?

Digital Fair Use bill introduced to US House (sans teeth)

If passed, the FAIR USE Act will amend the DMCA to codify recent exceptions granted to the anti-circumvention rules by the Register of Copyrights, which include some allowances for obsolete technologies and cell phone unlocking.

Doesn’t sound like a whole lot, especially since the bill specifically does not address some of the most controversial parts of the DMCA. But if codifying fair use is the goal (as fair use is not yet guaranteed, in the United States), maybe this bill can shake things up at least a bit.

It’s quite interesting to see how a large majority of citizens agree that things need to change yet a handful of corporate entities enforce the status quo without much apparent effort.

It’s also quite funny how many bills in the U.S. have acronyms designed to work as expressions. This one is:  Freedom And Innovation Revitalizing U.S. Entrepreneurship Act of 2007. Catchy!

Higher Education in a New Era

Thanks to a comment by Jay, a series of edifying articles in Washington Monthly about the current state of U.S. higher education, appearing in the September 2006 issue of that magazine.

I do tend to disagree with several dimensions of the approach taken by Washington Monthly, including the apparent enthusiasm for the “client-based approach to higher education” favoured by several institutions and bemoaned by its main actors. But I do appreciate the fact that such a conversation finally takes place. The blog post which prompted Jay’s comment was about Canadian universities but “don’t get me started” about the state of higher education in the United States.

According to its mission statement, Washington Monthly seeks to provide insight on politics and government in (the United States of) America. As such, it focuses on the potential ramifications of higher education for governmental (mostly U.S. federal) politics. Doing so, it seems to obey at least some of the Berlin Principles on Ranking of Higher Education Institutions, especially with regards to section A on Purposes and Goals of Rankings. (PDF version of principles.)

One thing that these articles avoids is blaming students for most of the problems. In my experience, today’s higher education students usually display impressive potential but are often inadequately prepared for college and university life. The fault might be put on “The System,” the parents, the diverse schools, or the governments. It’s quite unlikely that today’s students are inherently flawed as compared to previous generations and I’m frequently impressed by students of any age, social background, or local origin.

An article from the January/February 2002 issue of Washington Monthly also provides some insight in the financial dimension of higher education in the United States. The situation might have changed in the last four years, though it sounds somewhat unlikely that it may have greatly improved.

This coverage might be too journalistic and U.S.-specific but these are, IMHO, important pieces of the full puzzle of higher education in an interconnected world. These articles should contribute to a larger conversation on education. That conversation may also involve issues discussed in Daniel Golden’s Price of Admission book (as explained on the Colbert Report). Radio Open Source has also been broadcasting (and podcasting) shows on university leadership, academia, and education requirements, among several relevant topics.

It would be important to connect these issues with the broader scene of higher education around the world. Even in the cosmopolitan world of academia, not enough people get the benefit of experiencing more than a single educational system and a very small proportion of people gets to experience more than two. It is common for anthropologists to talk about “taking a step back” and “looking at the forest for the trees.” Higher education is no place for mental near-sightedness.

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Secularism and Ethics

A shameless self-plug of a comment I made on another blog:

the eBay atheist » Blog Archive » Video: Sam Harris Interview

In my mind, the same way that a religious background isn’t the necessary cause of morality, a specific belief system (religious or non-religious) is not a direct cause of immorality. Dogmatism exists with almost any belief system. It’s more obvious if that system is more exotic. Yet the belief system under much of Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Weberian work ethic) culture cuts so deeply into mainstream U.S. society (including many secular dimensions) that many people fail to see its impact and dogmatism.