Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Was The 26th Amendment A Mistake?

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe 18 ISN'T adult. Maybe 21 is. 

That seems to be the consensus among everyone over 21, at least based on my complete inability to get anyone interested in the issue after decades of banging my head. Pragmatic  concerns about alcohol about behavior overshadow the point of principle I've been trying to make.

Now a study is arguing "Case Closed: Research Evidence on the Positive Public Health Impact of the Age 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age in the United States."

Which was never. my. point.

My point is, and always has been, the huge contradiction in the law. 18 is considered the age of majority for military enlistment, marriage without parental consent, binding contracts, virtually everything EXCEPT drinking.

And most to the point for me, we underscored and emphasized that 18 Is Adult in the strongest way we could. In the middle of our most unpopular war ever, we changed our nation's most basic law to give 18 year olds the right to vote.

Amending the Constitution is a huge deal. It's a statement by a supermajority that would be nearly impossible to attain on ANYthing today that we need a change in our most fundamental law. And yet in 1971, we did it in just two months. Can you imagine ANY issue going from idea to done in just two months today? THAT'S how strongly we believed 18 Is Adult in 1971.

But now we waver on that principle, on the grounds of "public health."

If we were consistent in saying a public heath issue overrides a Constitutional principle, there are a LOT of studies saying we could save a lot of lives if we weren't so absolutist about the 2nd Amendment, and you see how far THAT got us the last time we tried after Sandy Hook.

See, when conservatives say "this is about principle," their people listen. When libertarian-liberals say "this is about principle," we're told to "be practical."

OK, I'll be practical. We've only ever repealed a Constitutional amendment once - when we realized banning alcohol was unworkable. Even the public health do-gooders who wrote this study admit it: "The weight of the evidence suggests that even though  the law is widely disobeyed, it does have a protective effect" in keeping alcohol away from 16 and 17 year olds.

The law doesn't say "keep alcohol away from 16 and 17 year olds." The law says "keep alcohol away from 18 19 and 20 year olds," and they admit it doesn't. Seems to me the appropriate way to keep alcohol away from 16 and 17 year olds is to make alcohol illegal for 16 or 17 year olds - WHICH IT ALREADY WAS.

A law honored mainly in the breach, and designed to do something other than what it says, makes a mockery of all law.
But for the sake of argument let's pretend I'm wrong. So let's say now 21 Is Adult. If so, be consistent. Maybe if the politicians want a 21 drinking age so badly, the Democrats can give up those millions of votes and the Republicans can give up all those young military recruits?

Age Distribution of Active Duty Force
Service 18-21 22-30 31-40 41-50 51-59 Average Age
Army 18.3 % 48 % 25.6 % 7.9 % 0.7 % 29
Navy 18.6 % 46 % 26.3 % 8.3 % 0.8 % 29
Marine Corps 36.9 % 46 % 14 % 3.1 % 0.2 % 25
Air Force 14.4 % 46 % 28.3 % 10 % 0.6 % 30
Coast Guard 12.2 % 48 % 27 % 12 % 1 % 30

The ugly reality is, the only reason the 26th Amendment passed was because "old enough to die, old enough to vote" was such a powerful argument. And rather than give up the bodies they needed so badly for Vietnam, the establishment conceded the point on the voting age.

The voting age was less important to their purposes. They predicted, correctly, that the youngest voters wouldn't do much with their franchise except, maybe, in the biggest presidential elections. Certainly not in the local elections and the party primaries where most of the decisions really got made. They gave up little, and took away the most powerful argument.

Of course, the Vietnam War collapsed of its own contradictions not long after. And more important politically, the draft ended, just as the peak of the Baby Boom aged out of the lottery. My sub-generation of "Shadow Boomers," without the immediate threat of the draft despite Reagan threatening to begin bombing in five minutes, never took to the barricades in quite the same way. "Free Nelson Mandela," a song Barack Obama and I both sang, was real. But not as immediate and personal as Four Dead In Ohio, and not as relevant to most of us as "The Future's So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades," which too many of my peers took straight up no irony.

So my less active generation, not a real political saw the drinking age, not a great moral cause but still a right we had, creep up from 18 back to 19 and then, in 1984, back up to 21. We said it sucked but did nothing.

But there was still the vote, that right the hippies and Yippies and Vietnam Vets Against The War got cemented into the Constitution Itself.

Now the Boomers are looking back and seem to be thinking: maybe we were wrong. Maybe 21 Is Adult after all. But because of that success in the 60s, that can't get taken away.

There's a contradiction here. Too many, a vast majority, are comfortable enough just to ignore it. And too many - pretty much everyone, really - lose all interest the moment they hit 21 themselves.

But for me this contradiction is like walking through a store where the speakers are wired wrong. Only one stereo channel is playing. It's one of those old 60s songs where the stereo separation was wide: one side was the vocals, one side was everything else. You know the song by heart - us Shadow Boomers always had to listen to our older brothers' music. You just hear the drums and the backing vocals and it  doesn't sound right and what's not being sung or heard is a bigger deal than what is. "The Roaring Silence," one album was called.

There's a roaring silence on this contradiction.We can admit there's a contradiction and figure out how to resolve it. My preferred approach to that is to bring alcohol into synch with everything else, but some may prefer to change everything else instead.

Or we can be upfront and say yes, there is a contradiction, and here's why. If public health is the reason for that, then we need to talk about the public health risks of things like guns, either domestically or in Afghanistan. All the convoluted logic should make for good entertainment.

The option I can't accept is what we have now: simply ignoring the contradiction.

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