By John Deeth
America has a dysfunctional coming-of-age ritual with alcohol. It’s tacitly OK to start drinking in your late teens, as long as you don’t get caught. That makes access to alcohol, while not difficult, still a valuable commodity for the coming-of-age person, emphasizing the link between adulthood and alcohol and encouraging overuse when the “forbidden” (nudge, wink) fruit is available.
The college drinking culture cost me a point off my GPA and my first serious relationship. My own difficult experience with alcohol tells me you can only learn from experience. That’s why I so adamantly oppose the 21 drinking age and why I voted “yes” to repeal the 21 bar ordinance.
21-only supporters try to claim that this fight is not about the drinking age. But by refusing to engage on this under-discussed issue, they perpetuate that cultural dysfunction and lose credibility with the same young people they’re patronizingly trying to “protect.” That makes it harder to address the binge drinking problem they claim to care about.
Nearly every politician I know privately says the 21 drinking age is unworkable. Some even admit it’s unfair to the young adults whose support they eagerly seek in general elections. But almost none say so in public. The City-University of Iowa establishment stance on this is that the end, cracking down on Number One Party School, justifies the means.
For almost all purposes besides alcohol, 18-year-olds are considered adults. In 1971, our nation made a wartime decision, by the overwhelming majority that a constitutional amendment requires, that the age of adulthood was 18. The drinking age is nowhere near as enshrined. It’s just legislation. It can be changed.
Even an assistant city attorney now admits that the 21 ordinance has human rights implications. But instead of addressing that by recognizing rights, the city wants to redefine rights to get their desired outcome.
Rights fights are uncomfortable sometimes. You have to stick up for unsympathetic characters like Larry Flynt and Illinois Nazis, and Vodka Samm and self-interested bar owners. (Yet self-interest is OK if you want to keep beggars away from your jewelry store.)
Rights aren’t less important just because the right in question is less high-minded.
Some people in this town would be happier if the UI were nothing but athletes, tenured faculty, invisible grad students who never leave the lab, and the cultural amenities usually seen only in much bigger cities. But without our students, without those immature and inconvenient freshmen and sophomores, there is no Iowa City.
The young adults who drive Iowa City’s economy want and deserve adult fun. I’m not pretending that 19-year-olds will go to the bar “just to dance,” or sip on one drink while earnestly discussing their literature class in a quiet pub. They’ll make mistakes.
That’s the point. “We don’t want to go back,” says 21 Makes Sense (sic), yet their vision looks back to the we know what’s best for you attitudes of the 1950s. Instead, we should encourage young adults to make their own decisions and take responsibility.
Only when we separate the alcohol abuse issue from the “underage” (sic) drinking issue, and recognize the rights and wishes of young adults, can we Old People be taken seriously on the very real problem of binge drinking. And voting Yes to repeal 21 Bar is a good first step toward the conversation about the drinking age we need to have.
l John Deeth of Iowa City writes a political blog and is a Johnson County Democratic activist. Comments: email@example.com