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In Defense of Alcohol: How Alcohol Brought Humankind Civilization and Other Good Stuff

August 9, 2013
Drinking red wine in Hyde Park, Chicago, a graduation party for the class of 2006!

Okay, so I did drink on occasion in uni.

At University of Chicago, I wasn’t much of a drinker. I didn’t identify with or feel comfortable with the ‘get drunk culture’ that existed there (and pretty much every American university, apparently).  I remember my first week of class, my first year: one night, a boy named Greg ran down the hallway, excited that he got the part in a play he auditioned for.  He had drunk copiously to celebrate.  As he ran down the hall in our dorm, he shouted excitedly and banged his hands on the walls.  “You… are kinda an ass!” he proclaimed, pointing his finger at his best friend, who was stepping out of his room to take a shower.  “You… are gorgeous!” he pointed another finger at an Indian girl who didn’t even live there, and who was eyeing him with disgust. Greg turned to me.  “You… are…” I braced myself. “Help me get to my room?”  He leaned his head on my shoulder, heavy and flushed.  He didn’t leave his room except to throw up for two days afterwards.

I remember feeling a quiet sort of pride in my not drinking.  I wasn’t inflexible, I wasn’t a total teetotaler; those people made others feel uncomfortable.  I just was responsible, that’s all.  I still remember the first time I got tipsy; it was off of mimosas at a Mock Trial breakfast-for-dinner team bonding night. I biked home, exhilarated with my speed and fuzzy mind and the blurred night streetscape.  I went to see the boyfriend of about a year, wanting to kiss him goodnight. He refused to kiss me, saying that as I was drunk I couldn’t give consent.  I told him he was an idiot and went off to my room to sulk.

The Knight's Templar used to be a bank, which means it has gorgeous architecture.

One of my favorite pubs in London: the Knight’s Templar, near LSE.

But these stories are from many, many years ago.  The point of them is merely to show that I am no wild, swinging from the chandelier type hooligan, blacking out on Fridays to wake up Saturday night and do it again.  There is no lampshade with my name on it. I am aware of the dangers of overdrinking, and in no way subscribe to being addicted to alcohol.

Though, in the spirit of full disclosure, I am currently writing this essay in a pub. While drinking a pint of Becks.  And flirting with a baby.

For the past year I have lived in London, a city with a drinking culture that is simultaneously more prevalent but less destructive than the American one.  In London, you drink almost every day; you go to the pub, you drink your pints of beer or cider or gin and tonics.  But you don’t go out and binge drink in the same way; you rarely get wasted drunk, mostly buzzed.  Drinking is less of a taboo thing and more of a way of life.  I have probably drunk more alcohol in the past year here than the rest of my life put together.  And as I prepare to leave this fair city, I thought it only appropriate to celebrate its drinking culture.

Or at least provide an essay in its defense.

Consuming some sort of spirit to alter consciousness exists in just about every culture.  It is as much a feature of being human as reading and writing is, more so, as drinking alcohol is even older.  There is even some evidence that the first sedentary people chose to stop hunting and gathering so it would be easier- you guessed it – to make beer. Alcohol has played a role in pretty much all aspects of life.


Religiously?  You got alcohol serving as libation for the dead and Gods with the Greeks, or mimicking the blood of Jesus for the Catholics along with that wafer. Medically? Alcohol has been used as a disinfectant or as an analgesic, not to mention as a cheap psychological medication to forget all worries and sorrows… for a night at least. Monetarily?  Serfs and day laborers were paid in booze, which had the twin benefits of serving as payment and making it harder for them to think about how mistreated they were and rebel.  Not to mention trade routes like the Atlantic Triangle Trade of slaves for rum and sugar and manufactured goods from Europe. And hey, beer was called liquid bread for a reason: the calories in a beer were high enough to be able to replace a proper meal.  Alcohol was also frequently invoked as a muse for artists; the drunken libertine with a song in his head and the stink of liquor on his breath is basically a cliché.

Nowadays, alcohol’s value is most visible in quotidian life: its expansive social effects.  And let me tell you, alcohol’s ability to liberate even the most repressed British male into loquaciousness and coquetry cannot be valued enough. Liquid courage, indeed. I maintain that alcohol alone can be held responsible for the continuation of the human race.  I don’t think nearly so many babies would be made without its ability to quash social fears and embolden the meekest of men or weaken the resolve of the strongest of women.  Alcohol helps loosen bonds of restraint for a short while, without creating a situation that is destabilized in the long run.  Drinking helps bring people together, breaks down barriers of self and enables connection with others, less fettered by fears of rejection.

No photos, nothing to see, move along...

Beergate ’10; drinking in Washington DC.

Similarly, drinking booze helps people relax, and de-stress in a socially sanctioned way.  Who hasn’t been there at 10pm, just leaving work, after trying to fix a last minute catastrophe and failing, shaking with tension and clutching that stemmed glass of wine as you contemplate a life of misery, unemployment and early death via self-immolation?  Wine has saved many a job, and many a marriage, simply by calming people down before they attempt to weather the storm.

But what about the problems associated with drinking?  They are real, they are dangerous, and they must be addressed.  True, but here’s an interesting tidbit: whether or not alcohol use manifests dangerously depends on how it is viewed in the first place. Cultures with generally positive views on alcohol use (variously defined as ‘non-Temperance’, ‘wet’, ‘Mediterranean’ or ‘integrated’ drinking-cultures) experience significantly fewer alcohol-related problems than do cultures with negative or inconsistent beliefs and expectancies regarding alcohol (such as found mainly in ‘Temperance’, ‘dry’, ‘Nordic’ or ‘ambivalent’ drinking-cultures). Guess which one grouping both America and Britain fall under?  If you guessed the latter, you are correct.  Negative expectations beget negative results; alcohol use is what you make of it.

I swear, yer honor, I only had... milk, that's right, milk in that cup.

Halloween one year at university. Oh dear.

So where does this leave us, alcohol drinking, nervous social creatures that we are?  I say embrace drinking as part of being human.  Enjoy the feeling of warmth and closeness that it brings.  Allow it to motivate your fingers towards holding that girl’s hand, or stand up to your malignant boss or buy that Groupon for skydiving.  But do try to moderate yourself.  One drink brings to mind carefree nights of riding a bicycle in Chicago while tipsy at university.  Young and free.  Too many makes one feel like a Greg: foolish, red-faced, spouting words and other… things that you’d rather not think of the day after.

To civilization and humanity’s need for social lubricant!  Prost!  Gan bei!  Kippis!  Ziveli!

Cheers.  I’ll drink to that.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2013 12:50 PM

    I’ll drink to that too, great post and informative.

  2. permalink
    August 9, 2013 10:41 PM

    Luca, I enjoy your posts. and the details you put into them. I think you know that I address you as Luca because you desire it, though I do think your name, Lauren, is a lovely name.

    Re alcohol, as a physician in my preretired life, I was very aware of the problems that many people have from alcohol. It is a global problem, and goes back a long time. I don’t agree with your statement “in defense of alcohol: how alcohol brought humankind civilization and other good stuff”. I don’t think it brought civilization to mankind. It is true that people far back in mankind’s history have sought relief from  their personal problems and used various means of modifying them, such as sedatives, narcotics, “medicine men”, LSD, and certainly alcohol. Chronic, repetitive use has been very destructive in many families. It is also true that its ingestion in amounts that are not inebriating can be relaxing, pleasant, and constructive. As a physician I also became very familiar with physical problems from longterm use of alcohol, causing for example cirrhosis of the liver. I also happened to have several close friends whose medical practices were devoted to the management of alcoholism. 

    I hope you know that I do like very much your thoughts from the middle seat. 

    I’m sure you also know that I am now very senior, having reached an astounding age, no doubt as a result of the great medical developments that make it easy to have normal blood pressure and normal lipid levels despite aging.  Looking forward, substantial longevity in our society will be commonplace.

    Love to you from this grandfather.


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