This might sound like a frivolous question, but I’m deadly serious about asking it. It’s something that’s been on my mind off and on for years, at least since web browsers first started appearing and breweries starting putting up web pages. I understand that drinking alcohol is prohibited if you’re under the age of consent — 21 here, but lower almost everywhere else that it’s not illegal — but is reading about something illegal likewise illegal?
I know there are plenty of books that people have censored and continue to censor because they believe that young people reading them might be corrupted by the ideas expressed in such books. I also generally believe such people to be backward doofuses, no matter how well-intentioned they pretend to be. But here in cyberspace, the ether that has no geography, things seem a little trickier. Anyone can access any website, any time. And that tends to worry people convinced that ideas are dangerous and that impressionable minds should only be exposed to things their parents deem to be safe. I know I’m over-simplifying, but overall the notion that ideas can corrupt I find highly specious. If an idea can’t hold up to a child’s scrutiny, maybe it’s not such a great idea after all. Kids tend to have very natural, well-defined bullshit detectors.
But censorship in the protection of childrens’ virtue is one of America’s most peculiar cherished institutions. We may not have burned books — though we did stupidly ignite some Beatles records once upon a time — but we certainly have done almost as much harm by trying to ban them. I tend to believe that ideas that challenge the status quo or people’s dogmatic beliefs are not only important to a functioning society but downright necessary. A society that can’t question its own values becomes a form of dictatorship. But when the censorship is self-inflicted by ordinary people trying to foist their own set of morals on everyone else, that’s far more dangerous than a government ruled by a single tyrant. A dictator can be overthrown and the will of the people restored, but when we do it voluntarily, that’s harder to fight. It’s the difference between Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter’s vision of a dystopian future, they censored one another voluntarily, believing it was for their own good. I find that view much closer to how our modern world functions, where private citizens devote their time to protesting other peoples’ morals “for their own good,” so convinced are they that what they believe must be correct. This is why I find neo-prohibitionists so frightening. They exude ignorance and moral superiority, believing forcing other people to believe whatever they believe and wanting to force us to behave as they do is all simply for our own good. They seem to believe a difference of opinion is not something to be tolerated, but squashed. The ends do justify the means, in their minds.
But back to the internet. Anyone, young or old, can look up how to build a bomb, smoke marijuana, do cocaine or any number of dangerous and illegal acts. Tobacco, insofar as it’s also illegal for minors, is very accessible on the web. Go to any popular tobacco company, like Phillip Morris or R.J. Reynolds and you can waltz right on to their website. But with alcohol, it’s another story. Most larger beer companies have a splash page where you have to certify that you’re over 21. Why? There’s no beer coming out of the computer using a USB tap, there’s nothing illegal you can obtain at a brewery’s website. All you can do is read about the brewery and their beer. So why is that more dangerous than reading about cigarettes, drugs or bomb-making, all of which — and who knows how many more I can’t think of — can be accessed without first confirming that you’re an adult? I’ve written over and over again about how important I believe alcohol education is to fostering more reasonable behavior among young adults, but if they’re presumably not even allowed to read about alcohol, then that’s yet one more way in which educating people is maliciously thwarted. Can I be the only one that finds that infuriating? Why should we restrict young people from even reading about alcohol? Why is reading about beer considered so dangerous that it alone is singled out for special treatment. As usual, my favorite comedian, Bill Hicks, has some salient thoughts on this subject:
“I’ve been traveling. I’ve been noticing an anti-intellectualism sweeping our world, I find quite frightening. I was in Nashville, Tennessee last year, after the show I went to a Waffle House, I’m not proud of it, I was hungry. And I’m alone, I’m eating and I’m reading a book, right? Waitress walks over to me, “Tch tch tch tch. Hey, what you readin’ for?” Is that like the weirdest fucking question you’ve ever heard? Not what am I reading, but what am I reading for. Well, goddammit, you stumped me. Why do I read? Well… hmmm… I guess I read for a lot of reasons, and the main one, is so I don’t end up … being a fucking waffle waitress.
But then… this trucker in the next booth gets up, stands over me, and goes, “Well, looks like we got ourselves a reader.” What the fuck’s going on here? It’s not like I walked into a clan rally in a Boy George outfit, goddammit, it’s a book! Am I stepping out of some intellectual closet? I read. There, I said it. I feel better.”
What’s more than a little frightening about his rant is that it was done over ten years ago (Hicks died in 1994) and the anti-intellectualism he refers to seems even more acute today than ever. Pop culture is rapidly becoming a celebration of dumb and dumber. Anything witty, intelligent or thoughtful is branded elitist, and will never last on primetime. Idiocracy may not have been as good a film as Office Space, but Mike Judge was just as prescient with the movie’s take on the direction our culture is headed. For further evidence, read Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture, in which he argues persuasively that we’re entering a new dark ages.
Think I’m alarmist? Take a look at these recent statistics concerning the state of reading in this country. “58% of the US adult population never reads another book after high school and 42% of college graduates never read another book. 80% of US families did not buy or read a book last year, 70% of US adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years, 57% of new books are not read to completion.” Before I had kids, I read an average of 2-3 books every week, including audiobooks I listened to in the car. That I’m so far in the minority is quite scary. How do we as a society address complex problems when reading a book is beyond our ken? If knowledge is power, no wonder we’re so helpless. Is it any surprise then that so many people still believe Iraq had something to do with 9/11 and Barack Obama is a practicing Muslim.
Undoubtedly, the best way to keep people ignorant and susceptible to superstition and propaganda, is to keep information away from them. The less people know, the more they can be manipulated and the easier they can be controlled. That’s the basis of early propaganda studies that were first tested on the American population before and during World War I. The pioneer of the field, Edward Bernays, successfully used the techniques he developed in the Ministry of Information, an ominous sounding branch of our government that manipulated support for going to war and squelched dissent on the grounds of national security. His basic principles are still being used today for the same purposes, and have also expanded into virtually every aspect of our lives.
So why is it a big deal that you have to click an extra box so you can visit a beer website, especially when anyone could simply say they were an adult to gain access? I think it has to do with the perception this extra step sends, which is that alcohol is so dangerous that even reading about it is illegal. It’s not, of course, but the intolerant neo-prohibitionists have created such a chill on our civil liberties and freedoms that huge companies are loathe to cross them and so voluntarily censor themselves to avoid their churlish wrath. That in doing so they might possibly keep information out of the hands of adolescents who need it the most, thereby adding to the problem of underage drinking, is typical of the mis-guided nature of the anti-alcohol movement. Because when reading is outlawed, only outlaws have beer books.