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Stanton Peele

Stanton Peele

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Saying Bad Things About Booze -- Propaganda as Science

Posted: 04/ 1/11 10:04 AM ET

I once went to the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey with my kids. They had an interactive exhibit where you typed in your personal behaviors (wearing a seat belt, smoking) and this added or subtracted years from your expected life span. For alcohol, the fewer drinks you had, the longer you were supposed to live, reaching a maximum at abstinence.

I recoiled from the exhibit like it was a hot stove. "You mean they can include propaganda as though it were scientific fact?" I asked no one in particular. I was so shocked because nearly every study before and since has shown that abstainers die sooner than moderate drinkers; none has shown that they outlive drinkers.

Propaganda is claimed as science every day in schools across the country, led by D.A.R.E. I've seen them do it, and my kids reported the propaganda back to me. (Although perhaps my wife went too far with our youngest by forbidding Anna to attend D.A.R.E., so that she had to sit in the hallway during the fifth grade "instruction" and missed the ice cream party that came as a reward for attendance.)

Propaganda as science began with the WCTU (the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union). The WCTU lead the way through the late 19th and early 20th centuries until national Prohibition was enacted in the United States in 1920. According to Daniel Okrent's Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, the WCTU ''education" campaign began shortly after Currier and Ives reissued the famous print of Washington's Farewell to the Officers of His Army, which took place in Fraunces' Tavern, in New York, in 1783.

Can you guess how they modified the lithograph when it was republished on the centennial anniversary of America's founding in 1876? I'll give you a hint -- there was a decanter and glasses on the table before Washington, and he was toasting his officers in the original, which was historically accurate. That's right. In the revised version, Washington's hand is balled into a fist on his chest, and the glasses and decanter are erased from the table.

Okrent continues that, around this time, "scientific" alcohol education was presented through

the dazzling career of a former chemistry teacher from Massachusetts named Mary Hanchett Hunt, who became one of the most influential women in the country through her religiously inspired temperance work, even if her tactics proved not to be so holy. ... (Okrent meant by the latter that Hunt was taking kickbacks from publishers, including money to take her girlfriend to Atlantic City, which I don't think was in the gospel she preached.)

Hunt believed it her mission to reach the nation's children, to saturate them in facts -- as she perceived them -- that would make young people despise alcohol as much as she did. ... [S]he enlisted the union's battalions in an assault on the nation's school boards, which she intended to put "into a state of siege". . . .

In 1886, Hunt took her caravan to Congress, which promptly passed a law requiring Scientific Temperance Instruction in the public schools. ... By 1901, when the population of the entire nation was still less than eighty million, compulsory temperance education was on the books of every state of the union, and thereby in the thrice-weekly lessons of twenty-two million American children and teenagers.

What many of these millions received in the name of "Scientific Temperance Instruction" was somewhat different from what the three words implied. The second one was arguably accurate, but what Hunt called "scientific" was purely propaganda, and what she considered "instruction" was in fact intimidation. Students were force-fed a stew of mythology ("the majority of beer drinkers die of dropsy"), remonstration ("persons should not take a stimulant before bathing"), and terror ("when alcohol passes down the throat it burns off the skin, leaving it bare and burning").

Placing such foofoo in textbooks enabled them to gain "the imprimatur most valuable to a publisher: the approval of Mary Hunt."

But Hunt was only the first in a line of great alcohol haters and educators, says Okrent:

"The day is surely coming," she had told the congressmen, "when from the schoolhouses all over the land will come trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon." And would they ever.

Next were Carry Nation, Billy Sunday, and on and on -- into the present. Consider the warning in HuffPost by a prominent Ivy League addiction specialist that "Combining alcohol and caffeine is -- in one word -- crazy. Don't do it! It has an excellent chance of hurting you, and a fairly good chance of killing you." Like Irish coffee and Kahlua.

It's an American tradition.