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Alan Miller

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Dry Campus?

Posted: 12/28/09 08:58 PM ET

Driving along the Santa Monica Boulevard where even the coolish LA weather is a far cry from the chills of New York and London that I am thankful to be away from, I sit back and listen to the informative KCRW Radio Station with its mixture of current affairs, world music and generally interesting programming. However, while I may be a long way from the cold European weather, some of the other equally chilling developments there certainly seems to be informing some of the debate here in the US. In fact, it is is entirely within the realms of "cultured debate" that some very concerning themes seem to be so popular.

The particular show that got my attention was This American Life, hosted by Ira Glass at NPR featuring Sarah Koening as producer at Penn State University. Penn State has been named #1 Party School in America by Princeton Review. Dealing with alcohol consumption by university students in America, I was astonished to hear about the Orwellian titled "wild party behavior patrol" that has been successful in curbing apparently rowdy students at The University of Nebraska. The eloquent and pleasant sounding Koening was pointing out that Penn State University has not been so successful - not necessarily for want of trying.

Koening did seem to be steering in the direction that reducing drinking among young people attending college was imperative and that it invariably, when implemented, improved academic output, reduced unintended sexual encounters as well as suburban residents not being adversely affected. All sound stuff seemingly.

Yet I couldn't help but wonder what has happened to the sense of adventure for young adults. Not only has it become compulsory for parents to intervene in every arena of children's play - now it seems as though we think it useful to micro manage behavior of a generation of adults that should be experimenting and exploring the world, intellectually yes for sure, but also culturally and with one another. While the crass stereotype of the frat party downing of gallons of beer and spirits may seem to epitomize the worst of over indulgence - the banging on about binge drinking may well be worse for our overall health as a society.

After all, the university is supposed to be a place where young people leave the family home and spread their wings and discover who they are as individual, autonomous citizens. True, many are aided financially still - yet the aspiration to go beyond the limits of what our parents and family have imposed upon us can be an extremely important aspect of maturity. Drinking alcohol, sexual encounters and experimenting in other arenas reflects a healthy relationship to an individual's ability to learn and navigate these areas and handle it themselves, without third party intervention and a barrage of health warnings from officialdom.

In the UK and Europe more broadly, it has become a very sad development that so many students upon graduating often return to the family home. Whereas once the independence and freedom of spirit and aspiration to achieve something in the outside world demonstrated a certain amount of ambition and self reliance, nowadays we are increasingly encouraged to think of ourselves as being in need of help, as being "vulnerable" generally. The UK government has continuously aimed to mobilize against so-called "binge drinking" in an attempt to appear coherent about something.

The increasingly relentless sensibility that it is acceptable for authorities to set limits and implement measures to enforce them (weather it be around drinking, smoking or what we eat) betrays the nasty idea that assumes citizens are no more than children who need to be monitored and mollycoddled - and then punished too. Of course, the issue of the legal drinking age in the USA is another strange thing that I find it hard to understand, when eighteen year olds can die in the military and vote it boggles the mind that we do not think they should be permitted to consume alcohol drinks. The question was put several times as to whether Campus should be dry. The Manifesto Club in Britain has mobilized young people to campaign against draconian measures that impact such freedoms.

Ultimately, for most people, the idea of enjoying alcohol with friends has always had a class component to it. One was either drinking beer in a blue-collar neighborhood or at the private club enjoying a stiff gin. Also, while the Temperance Movement made much of the state of the working class, we know the old WASPs loved to get somewhat pickled too. Today, the more pernicious arguments occur continually pushing the idea that we are all out of control, where "health" has risen to the challenge-me-not status.

Earlier on another KCRW show had reflected on social networks and their increasing importance and prevalence to Senators, Representatives in Congress and politicians generally who wanted to "connect" with an audience. In many ways, these two things go very well together. Unable to truly inspire people, in spite of the Obama Phenomenon, due to the deflated and hollowed out nature of politics in its non-contested form, politicians scrabble to "connect" alongside increasingly tending towards legislating and interfering in personal behavior. Where once they would "connect" through a vision to what could be done in the world actively, by citizens, now it is far more about what can be prevented.

A good aspiration for the year ahead is to adopt what the British journalist Mick Hume advocated recently, a new version of TINA (Thatcher and Reagan's notion that There Is No Alternative to capitalism) - which is TINA : This Is Not Acceptable.

This then can be the starting point to discuss what we would like to see instead. For one thing, a shift of focus on regulating lifestyle to see how we may really be able to regulate society in a way that improves and transforms it. For that, we will all need to be somewhat experimental, bold and independent of mind.

 

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