There’s a debate going right now about whether images and rhetoric that are extreme and potentially violent in nature can be responsible for actions taken by the people who view them. Obviously, the recent tragedy in Tuscon, Arizona is what sparked this debate, but it’s nothing new. Some people who are against people having legal access to abortions have painted the physicians who perform them as evil murderers and other people who have heard that message and internalized it have murdered abortion doctors. It’s happened more than once. If you’ve studied semiotics, you understand that at a minimum symbols and signs have power. Almost everything is a sign, both words and symbols, that is they mean something, often different things to different groups of people depending on how they’re framed or used. Dean Rader, in the San Francisco Chronicle, had an interesting piece applying semiotics to the events prior to, and leading up to, the Tuscon incident and assassination attempt in Palin, Crosshairs, and Semiotics: The Signs of the Times.
I bring this up because anti-alcohol and neo-prohibitionist groups have been painting alcohol as a great sin and inherently evil literally for decades. That includes both harmful propaganda and rhetoric along with graphic symbols, such as the banner used by one group showing a bottle of beer as a syringe, attempting to equate beer with heroin. The result of that, I believe, is that the average person does believe that drinking is a “sin” and that people cannot be trusted not to abuse it so therefore it must be highly regulated, taxed, demonized and marginalized. The other thing that such an incessant parade of propaganda might cause is the incident that occurred near Milwaukee, Wisconsin on Friday afternoon.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinnel, an unidentified 32-year old man with a metal pipe several feet long and two inches in diameter walked up to a beer delivery truck making its rounds at Mid-Town Groceries and ordered him to stop delivering the beer. When the deliveryman continued doing his job, our wingnut began smashing the beer, and spent about thirty minutes destroying roughly $2,000 worth of beer — possibly Milwaukee’s Best. While he took pipe to beer can — and the intrepid deliveryman tried to get him to stop without getting beaned with a big metal pipe — he ranted about the evils of alcohol, and “scolded the deliverymen for bringing what he called ‘poison’ into his neighborhood.”
That’s the same tactic Carry Nation employed, smashing up bars — private property — with a hatchet just because she didn’t like what they were doing. It’s something she was celebrated for, but it’s still vandalism and without trying to sound overly dramatic, terrorism. My OED defines terrorism as “the use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims” and Merriam-Webster calls it “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion.” Whether wielding a hatchet or a lead pipe, it’s using violence to promote your ideas and get your way.
Where did the Milwaukee man get the idea that beer is “poison” and it was acceptable behavior to smash someone else’s property? To me, that’s a great question we’ll probably never know the answer to, because this story’s not quite big enough news that we’ll likely see a follow-up report. Did these ideas infect him through years of neo-prohibitionist propaganda? Through the subtler, but no less effective, way in which so many take it for granted, thanks to our policies and laws, that drinking is “sinful” and that demonizing it only appropriate? With anti-alcohol propaganda so pervasive it seems quite unlikely to me that he came to this notion on his own. I take it for granted that he is indeed a lone wingnut and no neo-prohibitionist group will claim him as one of their own. But it makes you wonder. Rhetoric and symbols are powerful weapons that can influence just about anything, so why not a violent hatred for alcohol and the people who deliver it?