The New Tribal Rites of Turning 21

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Suicide carried off many. Drink and the devil took care of the rest”, but this was something  more than a  ‘yo ho and a bottle of rum’existentialist commentary on alcohol.The scottish philosopher understood the weight of


on the shoulders of mankind, as one of the many foibles of our psyche. Today, America doesn’t see alcohol as a real threat to the human race. Instead, alcohol plays a keen part in America’s economy, fluctuating  with the depression and happiness of its citizens.  We drink when we’re sad about the unemployment rate or our mediocre recovery from the market crash back in 2008. American’s drink when we’re happy, too. We drink after a promotion at work. We drink when the Giants win the World Series (well not all of us).  In fact, we drink most of the time. Yet, we’re one of the few countries with a legal drinking age of 21.

Stevens saw, like many other artists, writers, musicians, actors, politicians, teachers, and alcoholics, the damaging effects of alcohol and  our relationship with it. We don’t all drink when we’re sad, and maybe suicide isn’t just about sadness, or depression. What’s particularly unique and perplexing about alcohol related abuse, however, is the relationship most Americans have with alcohol. Because of the overwhelming amount of commercials fronting promiscuous co-ed blonds, clearly underage, drinking Bacardi and cola on the coast of Chile,


youth is not only influenced but also targeted by alcohol advertising companies. Alcohol in this country  is forbidden by law, but profited by advertising agencies.

Although they advocate for “responsible drinking” at the end of their commercials, Bacardi can’t, and doesn’t want to stop 18 year-olds from getting drunk. America has gone a long way since prohibition;but instead, it has developed a paradox of drinking acceptability, one which encourages drinking in the realm of commercials and popular movies but  gravely discourages its use under law. What are our models for responsible drinking then? Social standards act as our cool Aunt, while the government is our stern mother who enforces ‘rules’ that don’t always fit or make sense. Society will say something like, “Sure, Ginny can drink as a first year college student, although it’s illegal, because that’s what I did.” And mama government will say, “Drinking under 21 is prohibited, and those who drink underage will always drink irresponsibly.”



years old is a proud moment for young Americans. Reaching the big two-one is like reaching the last stop on the bus line. There’s no where else to get off, no where left to go. Down a few blocks, there’s a Rent-a-car place, but you’ll get there eventually. Just check out the bar across the street, have your first legal drink, and start planning your life. As a tingling-sensation manifests itself in the back of your head, and a warm pocket grows in your stomach, things look manageable when considering your life goals. On one hand, you need to get serious and consider future plans, but you still have time. You’re young without major obligations. The only difference now is your ability to purchase booze. You are America’s youth, damned by the remarkably infectious world of alcohol.

In the American world of alcohol, the bars are stocked with bountiful amounts of alcohol, groups of single people, and a distant sense of community. If only bar life could be like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 

Actually, Sunny  is definitely a lot closer to 21st century bar-life than Cheers. 

At 21 years, most American’s have consumed more than a few glasses of beer, or perhaps a few shots. Or the less-experienced drinks: 7 up and gin, mom’s secret bourbon stash, vodka shots in a plastic bottle with a splash of cranberry juice, a few glasses of cooking wine. The reality is, kids experiment with alcohol at a young age. Then why does American consumerism assume that no one under 21 has had a sip of alcohol in their entire lives? They don’t, but they pretend.

In places where the drinking age is 18 (almost everywhere in the world) one would assume that underage drinking starts earlier. But that’s not the case. We see more examples of underage, and more importantly reckless or irresponsible, drinking in the U.S than anywhere else. The linkage, whether it’s been proven, or whether it’s clear, appears in the advertisements on every television and computer screen nation-wide. All these commercials have one thing in common: they cater to an unready niche of underage drinkers. Big time alcohol advertisers appeal to them as our government oppresses their freedom to drink. It’s a cruel trick for the youth, a tease that ironically influences more irresponsible drinking.

So, yes  America’s social norms and legal statutes on alcohol conflict. And yes, no one person is the same when it comes to responsible drinking. Some will drink and fall asleep on the couch. Others will react violently and pick fights with strangers. But all will drink, all will get drunk, and age will always be only a number. When we consider the detrimental issues and the role alcohol plays, it’s too late. The damage is done. Like Stevenson, America needs to respect alcohol as a strong companion to the devil. I’m not saying drink is the devil, but it does have the gripping power to turn a fun time into a nasty one.

Ah, but who am I kidding. Drinking has and will always be a festive pastime, a go-to substance of choice for all Americans. Turning 21 has taught me, more than anything, how socially acceptable this alluring drug is for our youth. Alcohol is, like hot dogs and baseball, a growing piece of the backbone of American society. And our youth is America’s gambit in the War on Alcohol, which will never be a movement in the U.S. The word whiskey, the most delicious and potent of all alcohol types,  is derived from the Gaelic word uisge beatha, which means “water of life.” Overall, me thinks that Stevenson was addressing future alcohol drinkers when he compared alcohol and suicide, and in this sense alcohol is not only the water but also the poison of life. Without it, we die.  With it, we die faster.


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