Intemperate Minds

Freedom is an oft recurring theme on this blog. Often the subject is freedom from economic restrictions or government imposition. But there are other forces out there that restrict one’s freedom. For some people alcohol is one of those forces. As the members of Alcoholics Anonymous put it, “we are powerless over alcohol [and]… our lives have become unmanageable.” The bondage of addiction hints at an important questions about liberty.

Edmund Burk wrote that “men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” To be governed by ones passions or addictions is to be a slave. As a consequence, there are those who argue that certain substances and actions should be banned in an otherwise free society. Liberty must be preserved by prohibition. Although paradoxical, the logic is this:

The decision to give up one’s freedom is inconsistent with being a member of a free society.
Therefore, one may not choose to be a slave.
Freedom to consume alcohol is the freedom to become an alcoholic.
But to be an alcoholic is to be a slave to alcohol.
Therefore, a free man may not consume alcohol.

Of course there are other arguments put forward by prohibitionists, but this rationale is the most interesting to me: freedom to drink (or use drugs, or buy sex, or smoke cigars) is false freedom since it leads to intemperance. And intemperance, as Burke said is slavery. So to prevent people from becoming slaves to their passions, they must be denied the freedom to drink (or use drugs, or buy sex, or smoke cigars).

One might argue that the word slavery is being thrown about a little too freely here. It may be a mistake to conflate slavery to addiction with chattel slavery. However, there are certainly those who believe that slavery to alcohol is as bad as actual slavery. As Frederick Douglass wrote “we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum.” Both an escaped slave and a teetotaler, Douglass looks at the issue from an interesting perspective.

Although I have never been an addict or a slave, I do not think that slavery to alcohol is really comparable to chattel slavery. Further, I do not buy the argument that the only way to ensure freedom is to prohibit things that might lead to dissipation. In fact, I think that it is quite the opposite.

But this is not a new debate. After all, the first prohibition was on eating apples. So why did God put the tree in the garden if he knew that to eat from it was to die? Because, as the serpent pointed out, if there is no choice then there is no liberty.


Beer of the week: King Cobra Premium Malt Liquor – The serpent convinced Eve to eat of the fruit, so it can probably convince somebody to drink malt liquor. Malt liquor, as it turns out, is the sort of thing that alcoholics (and poor ones at that) would drink. As noted before, the designation of “malt liquor” in the United States basically just means “cheap, high alcohol beer”. A six pack of King Cobra is about 15¢ more that a sixer of Big Flats Light, but at 6% alcohol, this is the obvious choice for the drunk on a budget. That is until it is poured (although I think that it is more standard to consume King Cobra straight fro the can or 40 oz. bottle). This beer is very pale and very carbonated. Though the head fades very quickly, it is snow white and made of big bubbles, like a soda pop. It smells of cheap grain. The flavor is not as aggressively bad as expected. It has hints of apple juice and the strong carbonation leaves a pleasant fizzy tingle on the tongue. 

Reading of the week: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass – Just last week I wrote about how unreliable autobiographies can be. But I never said that they are not worth reading. In this passage, Douglass describes how slaves are given excessive amounts of alcohol to convince them that they are better off as slaves than they would be if they had to make their own choices. “Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty.”

Question of the week: Does the above rationale for prohibition make sense despite its paradoxical nature? Are there other, more valid reasons to support prohibition?


Seven Score and Ten Years Ago

This week was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the single bloodiest battle of the American Civil War. The battle had a tremendous number of lasting effects. For one, much of the land in and around the town of Gettysburg is now property of the federal government. As a child, I would run and play among the boulders of a section of the battlefield park known as Devil’s Den. I probably did not give adequate reflection to the fact that many young men fought and died among those rocks. But I was six; give me a break.

Perhaps the most notable offshoot of the battle was the inspiration for the single most celebrated piece of American propaganda ever written: The Gettysburg Address. It is almost universally praised as a brilliant piece of oration. In some circles, however, Lincoln has been accused of blatant hypocrisy in the Address. The principal point of the speech is that the Union troops who fought and died fought in defense of the principle of self-determination. In actual fact, the Confederate soldiers were the ones fighting for self-determination. The elected legislatures of their states had, by democratic vote, decided to secede from the United States. Secession was a radical but not unprecedented course of action. If it was more radical than the American Revolution, it was only more radical because as states they had more government input than they had had as colonies.

Secession has been derided as “unconstitutional”, but it may even have been less radical than the creation of the Constitution itself. The Constitutional Convention was brought together to revise the Articles of Confederation, not to throw them out and invent a new government. And the proposed changes were to be approved by Congress and by the states, but the framers specifically included instructions for the ratification of their own new document. These instructions totally bypassed Congress (from whom the Convention originally received the authority in the first place) and also determined that the new Constitution would be effective even without the consent of every state. As it turns out, consent of the governed may not be the great American guiding principle that Lincoln and so many others claim it is.

Beer of the Week: Spitfire Kentish Ale – The Spitfire fighter plane was an instrumental tool of the British military in the Battle of Britain. If either side had a few Spitfires at the Battle of Gettysburg, history would remember the battle quite differently. Mainly it would be remembered as “the battle where some insane time-travelers showed up with weapons that would not be designed for another hundred years and wreaked havoc.”

Spitfire Kentish Ale, however is not a weapon. It is a beer is brewed by Shepherd Neame, brewers of Bishops Finger. As such, Spitfire is also protected by a “Protective Geographic Indicator” by the European Union. Heaven forfend that another beer should be marketed as “Kentish Ale”. Anyway, Spitfire sure is a pretty amber beer. The smell is tangy and sweet and a bit grassy. The full malt body is balanced nicely with slightly spicy hops. It is pretty darn tasty.

Reading for the Week: The Gettysburg Address – This blog post certainly seems to come down on one side of the whole issue. It is important to note that the Confederate States made their decision to secede based on the argument about the spread and maintenance of the institution of slavery. Lincoln was right to start his Address with “the proposition that all men are created equal.” Early drafts of The Declaration of Independence, to which Lincoln refers, included an indictment of the slave trade; it was only a matter of time before the philosophical values of the Declaration came into direct conflict with the awful institution of slavery.

Question for the week: The Gettysburg Address includes the line “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Did Lincoln really not think that this speech would be remembered? If so, was it because he thought that it really wasn’t all that good?

Youth is Liberty

What is liberty? “I call liberty the flowers, the air, light, the stars, the happiness of going whithersoever the nervous limbs of twenty years of age may wish to carry you.” So says Aramis of The Three Musketeers. It is a strange definition of liberty, but it may stand up to some scrutiny.

Basically, the definition includes three parts: access to nature, movement, and age.

Prison is usually thought of as removal from society, but it is also removal from nature. Nature is a glorious whole, but Aramis refers to it by parts. “The flowers, the air, light, the stars,” are all important parts of nature, and all are denied to the prisoner. Their import is hard to overestimate. A recent post on this blog mentioned the pleasure derived from being able to gaze on the stars after a long period without seeing them. As for light, the modern world is positively flooded with it, but at the end of the 17th century, the dramatic date of The Musketeers saga, artificial light was a luxury and anybody without access to sunlight would not have seen very much light at all.

The freedom of movement makes perfect sense as the standard for liberty. Chains, the universal symbol of oppression, restrict liberty by restricting movement. Being held in place is a clear opposite of liberty.

The final part of Aramis’s statement is the most interesting though: age. Youth is liberty. I had a college professor who asserted that he was less free than his students because of his age. He could have attributed his comparative lack of liberty to his job, his wife, his children; because of his responsibilities he is not totally at liberty. There are things he must do as an employee, a husband, a father, and so forth.  But he did not point to his responsibilities, he pointed to his age. He no longer has the time or vitality of a man of twenty, and with each passing day his liberty is diminished accordingly.

So make good use of your liberty while you have it, one day you may find that you can no longer go whithersoever your limbs wish to carry you.


Beer of the Week: Bischoff Fritz Walter – There is a lot going on here. First, this beer seems to be named after Fritz Walter, legendary German soccer player. Germans love beer; Germans love soccer; nothing could be more natural. The label also includes the phrase “”einer für ALLE und ALLE für einer”: “one for ALL and ALL for one.” I am not sure if Walter was a big fan of Dumas, but who knows. As for the beer itself, I rather enjoyed it. My knowledge of the German language is quite limited, but I had a fair guess that “ungefiltert” meant exactly what it sounds like. When I inverted the bottle and saw sediment begin to swirl through the beer, my translational acumen was confirmed. Most surprising about this beer is that it seems to be an unfiltered European pilsner. I am so used to unfiltered beers being wheat beers, I was genuinely surprised to taste this crisp beer. I was reminded immediately of Pilsner Urquel, but after drinking a bit more, the sediment made itself felt in the form of a pleasant earthiness and spice that compliment the strong hops.

Reading for the Week: The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas – In this scene, Aramis acts as confessor for the book’s eponymous prisoner. The prisoner (in words very reminiscent of  Lovelace’s “stone walls” and “iron bars”) claims that he is content in prison and demonstrates how he is as free as anybody because he can still look out of his window.

Question for the week: Aramis regards the prisoner’s assertion that he is still free because he has his window as “that sinister philosophy which is the religion of the captive.” Is this an indictment of stoicism?

The Living Word

Books are alive! Not literally. In fact, their figurative life is more like the life in the germ of a seed. Not active in itself, but full of potential. As John Milton wrote in Areopagitica, books “are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon’s teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men.”

And the potential of books is unlimited. The books themselves are finite, consisting of only so many words on so many pages, but in those words and pages they “contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are.” Books may express simple, straightforward ideas or complex esoteric concepts; but either way, their impacts on the world go beyond themselves in the form of inspiration. Sometimes, they inspire ideas or actions that are at odds with the powers that be.

Areopagitica is not just an essay on the value of books; it is a vibrant defense of freedom of press. Milton was fighting against a law that would require state approval of all printed material. The form of his defense is that books are potent and active in themselves. Of course, this is exactly the reason that the state would censor books in the first place. It is a strange argument that the state should not engage in censorship because books are productive and active since the state necessarily fears productive and active thought. Any novel thought, particularly in the form of political or social organizing, is a threat to the establishment.

But Milton appeals to the members of Parliament as individuals, as men who “esteem it to imitate the old and elegant humanity of Greece.” He does this because although the state itself must always fear that new ideas will upset their established power, true humanitarians acknowledge that the intellectual progress of the human race should not be impeded for the sake of “the party line.” An attempt to censor a book is an attempt to kill truth itself; and “revolutions of ages do not oft recover the loss of a rejected truth, for the want of which whole nations fare the worse.”

Beer of the week: 5,0 Original Lager – An online program generated this translation of the label to this supermarket brew: “Just a simple black and white box! Gold imprinting, with no effort! Only a simple design! No expensive TV advertising! This savings goes to you! We saved as much as for everything! Except on the quality of the beer! 5.0 is an original lager, brewed to the German purity law! Ingredients: water, barley malt, hops and extract! Put your money better one! You pay less now for a good Pils without frills!”

I am not sure that I’d call this a “good Pils”, but it certainly is without frills. It is a simple mass produced beer. Not much on the nose, very basic flavor. Almost a savory aftertaste which surprised me (even though it is actually very slight.) If the price is right, this could easily be had in large quantities.

Reading of the week: Areopagitica by John Milton, Excerpt – One of the most eloquent defenses of free-speech I’ve ever read. I enjoyed this more than I enjoyed his poetry.

Question of the week: Can freedom of speech ever mean anything less than total freedom of speech? Does even the slightest restriction amount to a total lack of freedom?

Keep your law out of my soul!

Freedom of religion is widely accepted as one of the founding principles of the United States of America. However, religious freedom was not there from the start.

Every one of the colonies had laws regarding religion. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, non-Puritans were pretty thoroughly persecuted. Quakerism (one of the most peaceful and oatmeal loving of all Christian sects) was expressly forbidden. Some Quakers were even executed by the Massachusetts Bay government for their faith.

One of the first great strides toward religious freedom in America was the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson. He regarded the Statute as one of his greatest accomplishments and instructed that it be memorialized on his tombstone. (His presidency and all of his accomplishments during that period of his life are notably omitted.) In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson asserts that “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself,” so nobody should be coerced into participating in any specific church. Such a claim seems so obvious to us today that we recoil at the idea of state mandated church attendance.

What is striking to me is the analogy that Jefferson draws between the soul and the body. “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself ,” just as the care of his body and possessions belong to himself. “Well what if he neglect the care of his health,” he asks rhetorically, “Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick?”

How ironic! Jefferson appealed to the obvious freedom and sovereignty over one’s own body to demonstrate the freedom and sovereignty of over one’s own soul, but today the shoe is on the other foot. Freedom of (and from) religion seems so obvious to us, but the idea of personal physical sovereignty is constantly eroding. Imagine suggesting to Jefferson that one day the state would ban alcohol, “for our own good.” (Jefferson specifically mentions that “consuming his substance in taverns” is an activity in which every man has liberty.) Or, for that matter, the state would ban marijuana or super-sized colas. How incredulous would he be?

The fact is that a man’s body and soul, at least in this world, are inseparable. The state can’t save a man from himself physically any more than it can save him spiritually. “Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”

Beer of the Week: Taiwan Beer Gold Medal – At the beginning of the 20th century, the Japanese rulers in Taiwan decided that the people couldn’t be trusted with tobacco, alcohol, opium or salt, so they set up a state-owned monopoly company called the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation. Compare this to state monopolies on vice in America, such as state lotteries where gambling is otherwise prohibited “for our own good.” Today, however, Taiwan is a huge free-market success story and the TTL monopoly has been broken up. However, the 90 year head-start means that Taiwan Beer still dominates the market. Gold Medal is a cheap, mass-produced rice beer, so it is no surprise that it is basically bland and unappealing. The single part of this beer that stands out is the fairly distinct rice flavor. Sure, plenty of beers use rice and other adjuncts, but in this beer the rice plays a very prominent flavoring role. That is not to say that there is much flavor, but it actually is rather interesting how much this beer is unlike even other beers of its genre.

Reading of the week: Notes On Religion by Thomas Jefferson – This excerpt starts with a very interesting question: “How far does the duty of toleration extend?” This is especially important specifically with regard to religion since most religions assert that they are the one “right” religion and everybody else is not only “wrong”, but damned for it. “Every church is to itself orthodox; to others erroneous or heretical.”

Question of the week: Why has freedom of religion become so widely accepted while other freedoms have eroded?