“To alcohol… the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” – Homer J. Simpson
I read this essay by Adam Cole on NPR yesterday, titled: “Drink Coffee? Off With Your Head!” Cole explained that in the past some societies viewed the widespread acceptance of coffee drinking as a threat to social order. This was true of England and the Ottoman Empire during the 17th century, as well as in 18th century Prussia.
The threats came in different forms – in terms of health, spirituality, and political upheaval. Cole reiterated that sometimes coffee was blamed for draining a person’s vigor, at other times painted as “poison for the bodies and souls.” And it was also seen as a sort of lubricant for revolution, since it was consumed in coffee houses where people could discuss a range of subjects, including possibly getting rid of the current social and political status quo.
One point stood out to me, which was that at least twice in history – under the Ottomans and in Prussia under Frederick the Great – the political elites saw alcohol consumption among the masses as preferable to drinking coffee. While alcohol consumption posed its own problems, diminished sobriety was not very conducive to planning a revolution (at least not a very well-organized one). Therefore, in theory, alcohol could actually benefit those in power, as sort of an ‘opiate of the masses’ and a means of keeping revolution at bay.
This reminded me of an article by the sociologist Tom Inglis (2005) about the roles of alcohol and sex in Irish history. His main premise was that the Church in Ireland was especially successful at installing “a culture of self-abnegation in which sexual pleasure and desire were repressed” as a form of social control (p. 11). Inglis noted that while Victorian Britain is often held up as an example of sexual repression, it was actually a fairly short-lived part of British history. By comparison, in Ireland these values endured and were more deeply “seeped into the minds and bodies of the Irish.”
Inglis suggested that widespread alcoholism in Ireland could be a byproduct of this cultural attitude toward sex. To the Victorians, and to their contemporaries in Ireland, sex was seen as tapping into primitive, savage, and anarchic forces – “a satanic snare.” By curtailing marriage and promoting chastity, the Church and political elites sought to maintain social order, while having the added benefit of keeping population size more manageable.
Inglis also noted that while the Church in Ireland had tried to control alcohol consumption at least since the 17th century, those efforts were not nearly as zealous as those to control sexual immorality. In fact, the Church may have been willing to look the other way when it came to drinking alcohol, at least for men in the right settings (at pubs, festivals, etc). It was better to have a half-drunk population than an all-horny one. Inglis wrote:
“There could have been a symbiotic relationship between men drinking on their own and a subliminal displacement of repressed sexual drives and passions. This would help to explain why it is that while the drunk is a stereotypical and well-represented character in Irish literature and film, the wanton woman, the whore, the lesbian, the pornographer, the homosexual, the pervert, and in general the sexual transgressor are usually absent.” (Inglis, 2005: 22)
Is all of the above true? Obviously, history is rarely straightforward. It’s also too simple to say that coffee and sex equal bad; alcohol equals good. The larger point is the role that cultural values play in our perceptions. In Christianity, alcohol can be a sacrament. In Islam, it is forbidden. To prohibitionists, alcohol abuse was a threat to health and social order, as well as a cause of domestic violence. Human perceptions of the same phenomenon can vary by time and place, as values ebb and flow. As friend of this blog Robert Cooper reminded me a while ago, Shakespeare’s Hamlet said that “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Is that true? Was Hamlet right? It probably depends.
Now, I think I’ll have another cup of coffee.
Inglis T. 2005. Origins and legacies of Irish prudery: Sexuality and social control in modern Ireland. Eire-Ireland. 40(3):9-37. Link