I try to imagine a Senate committee looking into my past and trying to find problematic episodes in my teen years that would disqualify me from holding a position of public trust. What would they find?
Well, they might find out about the time that my best friend and I had to sneak a coffin — an actual used casket — out of our church basement to sneak it back into a funeral home. We had borrowed the coffin for a Halloween horror house, but I lied about already having returned it. One thing led to another until Larry and I managed to sneak the coffin out of the church basement and into the funeral home without anybody seeing us. It was like something from a bad movie.
Or they might hear about the time I was trying to find a way into our high school on a weekend and the assistant principal caught me and threatened to call the police. But I talked him into calling the principal at home so that he could give me permission to go into the school — on the pretext of getting something from the newspaper office — so we escaped unharmed. Instead of getting to call the cops on us, the fuming assistant principal had to escort us inside and let us get what we wanted.
Or it’s even possible they’d hear about me trying to stuff myself into this mailbox on a church trip to North Carolina. In fact, they might hear a lot of silly or ridiculous stories. But they wouldn’t hear a single allegation of actual misconduct such as the ones that have started dribbling out about Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Why? Were we better people than he and his friends were? Not at all. I simply ran in a culture of kids who didn’t use alcohol or other recreational drugs. We were sober and immature. They were drunk and immature.
I don’t have any opinion about Kavanaugh or whether he ought to be confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court. If you understand my political philosophy, you might understand why. (I don’t want anybody in such positions, but that’s another subject for another time.)
As Republicans and Democrats argue about Kavanaugh’s past, his history of teen alcohol use — and what he might have done while drunk — have become a focal point. It’s framed in terms of sexual assault, but the truth is that it’s impossible to ever really know the truth about what happened. Not only are these clouded memories from decades later, but the bigger issue is that these stories involve teen kids who were routinely getting drunk and doing things they almost certainly don’t remember.
Do you think we would be hearing these accusations if there had been no alcohol involved? It’s theoretically possible, of course, but it seems to me that the big villain here is an American culture which treats drinking alcohol and intentionally getting drunk as a reasonable and normal part of life.
I knew people who lived like that when I was in high school and college, but I intentionally made a very different choice. I looked around and saw what alcohol did to many of the people who used it and decided that it wasn’t a smart choice. For me, it wasn’t a religious or moral issue. It was an issue of risks and culture.
The people in that Senate committee wouldn’t have dared to make alcohol use the issue last week, though, because pretty much everybody in politics — Republican or Democrat — lives in the same alcohol-fueled culture. When I worked in politics, I saw it constantly. Campaigns and party organizations were awash in booze. You were nobody if you didn’t get wasted with the rest and do things you would regret in coming days. (I knew one woman — later elected to statewide office here — who would get drunk and start taking her clothes off. Her boyfriend would constantly tell her to “cover your beaver, dear.”)
Alcohol is an accepted part of culture, simply because it always has been. The medical evidence is compelling that no amount of alcohol is safe for you to consume, but the bigger issue to me is that this drug compels people to destroy their lives and take others with them.
I know men who’ve been drunk and had sex with drunken women, wondering later whether what they did might have been rape. I know women who have been blackout drunk and become conscious to find they had been raped while they were conscious or semi-conscious. This is a routine part of the culture, whether most people want to admit it or not.
Few people will behave this way when sober. But when they’re drunk, their inhibitions are down — and people do whatever feels good in the moment.
I don’t want to use law the ban alcohol. I don’t want to use the force of law to ban any sort of recreational drug, but I wish serious and responsible people could have honest conversations about the tradeoffs involved in the use of this dangerous drug — and I wish they could see what they’re teaching their children about what it means to live a normal life.
I have no doubt that I would have done some stupid things along the way — dangerous things — if I had used alcohol. But one of the best decisions I ever made was to stay away from the stuff.
This culture would be hard to change. The evidence against alcohol is compelling, but it’s so hardwired for people to believe that alcohol equals fun. I heard a conversation a couple of weeks ago among some local teens that illustrates that.
An attractive teen girl said something about getting some alcohol and one of the boys in the group said he didn’t drink.
“And that’s why you’re no fun,” the girl said to the boy, leaving him looking embarrassed. “Anybody who wants to get with me has got to party it up.”
They left soon thereafter and I’ll never see them again, but the odds are strong that this boy is going to tell himself — at some point — that he has to start drinking alcohol if he wants to be part of that girl’s crowd. And another kid will be pulled into a life that will leave him doing things that he will almost certainly regret.
It’s your decision about whether you want to be a part of that culture or not. I don’t want to make the decision for you. But don’t pretend that there’s no choice. Just because it’s always been the path of least resistance for those around you doesn’t mean you have to choose that path for yourself.
I hope you’ll consider that maybe it’s a smarter choice to stay away from it and to teach your children why it’s a bad idea.
Some people won’t consider you “fun” anymore. And your silly stories might be less memorable. But you might live a saner and healthier life.
Alcohol is the real villain in the Kavanaugh story. Unfortunately, nobody was there to stop those kids from drinking themselves to oblivion — leaving all of them wondering years later what really happened.