The arrest of the 19-year-old Bush twins for drinking liquor in an Austin restaurant gave the news-starved (and starved brained) press something to cackle over. The girls, clearly in a state of arrested adolescent rebellion, checked their Secret Service agents at the door and, even after the restaurant rejected Jenna’s fake ID, succeeded in getting their (what else?) margaritas. Compounding the “irony” is the fact that their father, as governor of Texas, had signed into law the zero-tolerance standard on underage drinking. “A chip off the old block,” the bolder pundits were saying on talk shows, and a telling refutation of the fine parental principle, “Do as 1 say, not as I do.”
Irony aside, the girls’ legal and moral problems raise a deeper concern. Americans are apparently horrified to discover that many college girls drink and that some of them occasionally drink too much. I, too, am disgusted to see young women ordering drinks and making fools of themselves as if they were young men. A long time ago in Lanterns on the Levee, Will Percy correctly predicted the fall of American civilization, based on his observation of nice young women drinking away their inhibitions in public places.
Alcohol per se is not the problem. Because of certain well known differences between the sexes, young women have a duty never to fall under the control of young men, whether as a result of drinking too much or merely from infatuation. Most women should not drink cocktails (except for the occasional drink to keep their husbands company); they lack the talent and stamina for the work, and if they acquire the skill, they lose a great deal more than they gain.
But there is absolutely nothing wrong in a young woman drinking wine with her family, and the very foolish campaign against drinking that puritans have inflicted on this poor savage land for a hundred years has done a great deal of damage. Italian children grow up drinking wine with their families, and (by and large) Italian college students display better discretion than Jenna and Barbara Bush have demonstrated. I frequently observe Italian families in restaurants, especially on Sunday afternoons, serving a little wine (often mixed with water) even to fairly young children, who appear to suffer no ill effects. Where did people ever get the idea that it was government’s business to tell parents what they could give their children to drink? They got it, of course, from the same New Englanders who liberated all slaves (including wives and children), excommunicated the Trinity from American soil, and, in the name of individual liberty, extinguished both individualism and liberty. The Bush girls are Cotton Mather’s revenge on their father’s Yankee ancestors.
I am not at all sure that we need the government to impose any regulation of alcohol—apart from setting standards of purity, strength, and enforcing laws on correct labeling. “Oh, but how are we going to control drunk driving?” Another bugbear. The law is supposed to punish criminal behavior and even criminal intent. Since when is the law supposed to punish you for a physiological condition? Suppose, for example, that we repealed every law limiting blood-alcohol content and replaced them with appropriate laws against people whose reckless behavior has caused destruction of property, injury, and death? Suppose, for example, that a man over 21 gets drunk and drives into a parked car. The damage is, say, $5,000. Of course, he or his insurance company pay for the repair; in addition, however, he is treated as if he had, stone sober in the cold light of day, taken a sledgehammer and smashed up the vehicle. He should certainly do time for such wanton destruction, and if, six months after his release from the county work farm, he got drunk again and killed somebody, then a charge of first-degree murder would settle accounts nicely. A few well-publicized jail sentences—and executions—would, I suspect, do more than all the laws, driver-safety courses, and 12-step programs in the world.
We modern Americans, by contrast, are completely irrational: We no longer believe in justice, and while we refuse to execute murderers and child-molesters, we demonize conditions like alcohol in the blood or prejudice in the mind. Since we have eliminated manners from our public life (and since smokers are boorish enough to inflict their smoke on others), we cannot politely ask someone sitting next to us in a restaurant not to smoke, and so we have instituted elaborate legal codes that demonize even the politest of smokers. In our favorite local restaurant (the Irish Rose), my wife and I —confirmed nonsmokers (except for my occasional cigar)—always sit in the smoking section because the smokers are having more fun. I don’t like smoke—it is annoying and causes my eyelids to swell up—but I positively hate the anti-smokers. I certainly would not drink with them.
Drinking is a social art, circumscribed by rituals and codes of manners. Wine and beer are not drugs, whose sole purpose is to destroy our capacity for civilized life. They are a vital part of civilization itself, and the widespread acceptance of the equation “alcohol = heroin” (or cocaine or even marijuana) reveals how few civilized people are left. Blue laws are often blamed on religion, but—and I am putting this as delicately as I can—prohibitionism is inconsistent with authentic Christianity: Our Lord not only set the example, in changing water to wine, but He sanctified wine as a means of summoning His presence. Besides, the whole moral bias of Christianity is against the kill-joy meddling of pharisees, scribes, and puritans. It was not Catholic New Orleans or Protestant Illinois but the post-Puritan, ex-Christian state of Maine that blazed the trail by prohibiting alcohol before the War Between the States.
It is not merely that puritans are mistaken (which they are), or that they deliberately and perversely misinterpret Scripture (which they do), but that they set themselves up as self-made gods in opposition to the moral freedom we enjoy as followers of Christ and members of His Church. If they do not wish to drink wine (except, of course, in communion, where it is required of all Christians), no one will force them, but their desire to regulate other people’s conduct and other people’s children reminds me of the little girl in the children’s story: She lay awake every Christmas Eve, frustrated because none of the church clocks in her town struck midnight at the right time—that is, when her bedside clock chimed 12.
Of course, there is a moral law that society is supposed to enforce, and that moral law may quite justly include prohibitions on adultery, on seduction of the innocent, on pornographic displays, and on public drunkenness, and it is not quite true to say that society’s interest in morals stops at the threshold of a private home. If my neighbor spends his life watching films that celebrate the rape and murder of little girls, the fathers in the neighborhood (or, in a civilized society, the “forces of public order”) may well decide to drive him out of town. And if my neighbor decides to practice polygamy, against the laws of God and the state of Illinois, he should not be surprised if the men whose wives, sisters, and daughters he is preying upon make a vigorous attempt to enforce the moral law.
But wine (and the occasional dry martini, preferably with gin straight up and served perhaps, if you are hungry, with a cheese stuffed olive) is neither a crime nor a vice. As the Greeks have told us, wine encourages truth, warms our friendship, and, as Homer says, “lifts up the courage of a man wearied from battle.” It is a normal part of our Western experience, celebrated in our literature and art, integrated into the rituals of our religion, and intimately bound up with the lesser rituals of wedding parties and wakes, birthdays and Christmas dinners, and my upcoming 30th anniversary when I intend to break my personal rule against drinking champagne.
Our pernicious obsession with regulating other people’s private lives stems, in part, from what Edgar Lee Masters called our “Hebraic Puritanism,” but it is even more the product of the bad moral philosophies of John Locke and Immanuel Kant, who emphasized rationality and duty at the expense of personal attachment and sound character. For liberal philosophers of nearly every school, morality is reduced to abstract calculations of right and wrong, carried out by human beings who deny their own inclinations in order to do what they know is right.
This theory, which is contradicted as much by our intuition as by the observable facts of human life, has led to pernicious consequences. Duty and reason, obviously, play a part in the moral life of men and women, but so do non-rational affections such as friendship, love, respect, personal honor, loyalty, and patriotism. If the security of our lives and property depended upon our neighbor’s grasp of the Categorical Imperative, we might just as well live in New York City.
The Hebrew Scriptures nowhere teach the abstract and meddlesome morality of modern puritans who presume to know how to rear other people’s children. Jewish tradition, as much as the Greek, Roman, and Christian traditions, teaches respect for the family and for the community. In fact, every sensible person in all the traditions that converge upon tire West understood that the family was the nursery both of personal morality and of the civic-mindedness on which the institutions of our common life depend.
It is, after all, within the family home that children learn to be good, not simply by listening to parental admonitions or by reading the Ten Commandments on a refrigerator magnet. Good character is the result of good habits, and good habits—for most of us—depend upon the hypocrisy of pretending to be good by doing good things—in other words, on manners. “Politeness,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to a young kinsman, “is artificial good humor; it covers the natural want of it, and ends by rendering habitual a substitute equivalent to the real virtue.”
“Would you like some more mashed rutabaga?” asks the father who has read his Jefferson. “No,” replies the sulky child who has not. “No, what?” demands the father. “No, thank you,” the sulky child hisses between his teeth. “No, thank you what?” insists the obstinate parent. “No, thank von, sir,” declares the little victim of this lesson in deportment, wondering to himself, “Why won’t they leave me alone to be myself?” What the father does not tell the child until he is much older is that “being yourself means remaining not merely an animal, but a feral beast, an animal supposed to be domesticated but allowed to run wild and become a plague to the human beings he is supposed to serve.
The problem with the President’s charming daughters is not that they drink or lack discretion, but that they seem to care so little for their father’s happiness. The irrepressible Vlad Zhirinovsky, hardly a model gentleman, wrote the girls to tell them to behave themselves and not add to their father’s burdens. It is good advice from an unlikely source, but even a Zhirinovsky seems to grasp the obvious connection between morals and manners.
Fine manners are an aristocratic accomplishment, but peasants and merchants also used to live by complex codes of behavior that take some of the sting out of the everyday life in which our sensibilities are buffeted and pummeled by friends and family (to say nothing of strangers and enemies) until we begin to envy hermits. A pleasantly spoken “excuse me” or “you’re welcome” sugarcoats the bitter pill of life, and “yes, sir,” uttered by a son or junior colleague is a reassurance (probably false) that the old man has not lived entirely in vain.
Ultimately, all forms of courtesy are an implied recognition that other people exist, that they may even be doing the best they can in making their way through the world. Bad manners (or, what is most common in America, no manners at all) are a way of telling people, “Watch out, world; here I come, and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll get out of the way.” If a gentleman never unintentionally gives offense, what word can we use for people who act as if the world belonged to them and they did not care how they advised their own property? They are not ladies and gentlemen, certainly, but neither are they peasants or bourgeois or even workers. They are, I suppose, mere proletarians, human bodies used to fulfill purposes about which they have no clue. This is the real effect of socialism in America, not the distortions of the market or even the intrusion of government into private life. Marx, whose bad manners matched his morality, is probably looking up at America from his comer of Hell at this very moment, pleased with what he and his liberal and socialist allies have made out of the once-decent American peasantry. If prohibitionism is un-Christian, the least we can say of American manners, since the socialist revolutions of the 1930’s and 1960’s, is that they are increasingly inhuman.