Distortions. The Temperance movement, or Why I’m having deja vu when I read this stuff

I’ll admit, I’m a booze history nerd with a bunch of letters after my name. During my undergrad I did a paper on the Woman’s Christian Temperament Union (WCTU) in London Ontario, and from that I did a Masters on the WCTU in Ontario (it was terrible but nudged me through to my PhD). I tried to get away from the booze in grad school (as a topic, I learned how to drink beer in grad school so I got at least two benefits) but slipped into drugs (as a topic, I didn’t do drugs in grad school–why do I feel I need to justify myself to you?) and my dissertation was on the origins of Canada’s drug laws.

But when I got out of grad school I was again trying to get away from it. Academia is an odd drug. You are broken down as an everyday person and rebuilt as a scholar. (Imagine if the Marines ran a monastery and you get a sense of what grad school does. Wait, was that the Jesuits?)

Anyway, after grad school, working at a university but not as a scholar, I was asked by a colleague some questions about liquor in Ontario at the time of prohibition. I began to wonder what it was like when prohibition ended in Ontario in 1927 but continued across the border until 1933 (December) and what changed in 1934 when drinking was permitted in public spaces (mostly hotel beverage rooms). Since I was located in Niagara, it was an especially poignant topic. I began researching the reconstruction of legal liquor in the province and eventually published a book on the topic which won a few awards and which I still think is pretty nice. I also got my favourite picture on the cover, although I had to make the graphics person tint the liquid darker because originally it looked like beer I’d not normally drink.

I said I am a nerd, I’m also a beer snob, although I like to say aficionado.

When I began that research, which focused on the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, I had expected to see the values of temperance reproduced at a bureaucratic level. This, after all, is what we are led to believe here in Ontario, that our liquor system is based on “prohibition era” laws. But what I found, (and the evidence is pretty extensive), is that the LCBO was actively resisting the entreaties of temperance. Its job was to build a functional liquor system; it was inherently political. The administrators at the LCBO had to make drinking appealing enough that people would stop going to illegal drinking spaces or worse drink products that are bad for you (like rubbing alcohol or canned heat–I talk about this in an article here), but not so liberal that a lot of problems would appear and the temperance movement, still loud but waning in influence, would be reinvigorated. It was a drinking system, not a temperance system. (Well, ok, it was temperance in the literal meaning, which is why the book was called Try to Control Yourself: it was about a system based upon self control and encouraging drinkers to try to follow the rules, and be a good citizen, which I called a “citizen drinker”)

Anyway, after a brief adventure turning my dissertation into a book (and I’ll say it’s very good but I’m biased so read it for yourself and see) I returned to booze. I had a niggling question about what the drinking landscape in Ontario looked like before prohibition (something that I assumed was very different from what happened after 1927 and more specifically after 1934 when you could drink in public places again).

I began excavating the licensing policies and got deeper and deeper into it. It was quite the rabbit hole, because policy isn’t just about law making; all policy has its own history, has influences and outcomes. A law or policy represents a moment in time. (My students of health policy will understand this since it seems to be a mantra).

In this work I had a chance to reconnect with my old pals the temperance movement. As do many historians of temperance, although a drinker I had an odd affection for the WCTU. As the history shows us, they were progressives interested in a better world for all. The WCTU was also a springboard into public life for many women, often encouraged to remain in the home and leave the public world to the men. So it resonated with historians on many levels. The WCTU also left really great documentation–minute books of meetings, journals, tracts, etc , so it there was a lot of material on which to build research.

But as I began reading temperance in light of the broader social, cultural, and political landscape of Ontario and Canada, I began to see something different. The temperance folks were, to be blunt, bloody minded zealots who brooked no disagreement. If you didn’t believe that liquor was evil and had to be eliminated, you were one of those dastardly and evil “wets” to be dismissed and vilified.

In other words, if you’re not with us you’re against us.

One day, having written about half the book (I thought it was more, but it kept expanding) I was reflecting upon the way “Drys” (temperance), “Wets” (the liquor industry), and people in the middle–moderates, who were the majority–articulated their views of the nation. All of them were debating what a liberal society, founded in principles of individual freedom, equality, and property rights, should do about alcohol.

For the temperance folks, freedom meant freedom from being enslaved by King Alcohol, being released from the demon rum, and sometimes that required driving him from the land. They used histrionic and even hysterical images like the classic Drunkard’s Progress to impress upon people the dangers of drinking even one drink.

Sociologist Joseph Gusfield called this sort of message a representation of “status anxiety” by which the middle class was reminding its fellows that life is precarious and you have a risk of falling. Be careful out there, the demon is gonna getcha.

Their message to working class was that drink was dragging you down and to stop drinking was to take a big step towards affluence. (This was also repeated by early working class associations like the Knights of Labor–you can find a great book on this movement in Ontario by Bryan Palmer and Greg Kealey here). From middle class temperance people, who had no understanding of the role of drink in building and reaffirming social bonds, this language could often be patronizing.

For the drinks industry, freedom was the right to do what you want as long as you don’t hurt other people, and the right to run your business free of harassment or overly burdensome rules. They also, frequently, reminded readers and listeners that they were also citizens of the same country, and were concerned about indulgence.

The moderates had some well-known and articulate members such as Goldwyn Smith and Principal George Grant of Queen’s College (future Queen’s University) a Presbyterian who probably made his temperance-minded Presbyterian brothers and sisters apoplectic from his writings against their cause (by the way apoplexy=stroke and evidence suggests moderate booze consumption is protective. Just saying.) Their view was simple: people should have the right to do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt other people. They were not a bunch of libertarians; there was a strongly articulated moral framework. From a moral standpoint, if you prohibit alcohol, you are not making people more moral. True moral character requires the capacity for an individual to resist temptation and act upon their own good judgement.

These contrasting visions of liberalism led me to completely revise the book, which became Liquor and the Liberal State. I am very proud of this one, and it took frickin forever to finish and I managed to keep the jokes in.

Now, reflecting on these ideas of liberty, in this formulation, you may see the CCSA’s guidelines as reflective of the moderationist message: drink what you want but be careful.

Yet as with the temperance movement, there is a certain bloody-mindedness and manipulation in the guidance (I’ve discussed the manipulation earlier). The “one drink is too many” message of temperance–King Alcohol will damn you–is reproduced in the Guidance. Saying there is “no safe limit” is reflective of the earlier discourse. Where temperance talked about morality (see the last half of the drunkard’s progress) neo-temperance talks about health.

But, you say, health and morality are different! One is tangible and has a direct impact on our lives, the other is philosophical (and theological) and doesn’t matter much now.

Yes and no. Morality was and is a way we judge and impose value upon the actions of others. Mother Theresa, pretty moral. Paul Bernardo, not. Donald Trump… well depends on your perspective.

Health has also become a way of judging people and impose values on their actions. Think of how a pregnant woman drinking a glass of wine is judged, and even possible verbally accosted by strangers. Think of how a person who is obese is assessed while sitting at McDonald’s (I’d say something about the Tim Horton’s Double Double but that company seems to get a moral pass in Canada).

(Let’s not talk about the way tobacco smokers are viewed or how vaping, once a harm reduction strategy to help people get away from the toxins in tobacco is now itself a marker of deviance).

We are trained to use health to asses worth, judgement, character, capability, intelligence … It is a moral judgement, using the language of health. There is a brilliant collection of essays on this which you can find here and I highly recommend.

So when the CCSA makes its recommendations of how you can reduce your risk by drinking exponentially less booze, it is reinforcing a certain moral discourse based upon drinks per week. If you are so reckless as to endanger your life by drinking more, what does that say about your character as a citizen?

In Try to Control Yourself I used the term “citizen drinker” to represent the sort of drinker who was consuming alcohol according to the laws and rules of the state. Don’t drink too much, no partying too hard, drink in the licensed spaces, follow the rules, drink the booze that is permitted.

But the CCSA is implying, with its “no safe amount” argument, that there is no room in our society for the citizen drinker. He or she is irresponsible. King Alcohol has got them, and he is coming for you.

(c) Dan Malleck 2023

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