Saturday, February 14, 2015

21 Bar Round 4: This Time, In Des Moines

Look, this wasn't my idea:
Senate File 208, a bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday, would prevent Iowa counties and cities from adopting ordinances barring 19- and 20-year-old adults from bars.

Sen. Wally Horn, D-Cedar Rapids, said the legislation would also overrule existing ordinances that keep 19- and 20-year-old adults out of bars. That would include Iowa City’s, which bans those patrons from drinking establishments after 10 p.m.

Horn, who introduced the file with Rick Bertrand, R-Sioux City, said the bill focuses on safety, arguing that allowing those adults in bars would keep them away from dangerous house parties where binge drinking and assaults occur.
It's happening for all the wrong reasons:
Bertrand operates three bars in Sioux City -- McCarthy & Bailey's Irish Pub, Pearl's Wine & Booze, and Blue Ribbon Tap -- as well as a banquet and party room called The Big Snug.
Yet I'm sure the first thought the Johnson County delegation had at this bill filing was: "oh, shit, now we have to listen to Deeth rant about it again."
Hopefully just this one.  To tell you the truth, even I'm sick of hearing me rant about it. I said everything I could say in every possible way in 2007 and 2010 and 2013,  and my angle was both unique and ignored. Each time hoping to find the right persuasive magic words, each time failing, and making Deeth: 21 Bar a punchline.

But those three experiences tell me that literally no one else is going to say what I say.  I'm stuck with this issue, and have no more chance of shedding it than I did of banning the beret.  All I can do is what I did with the beret, embrace it: I'm the 18 Is Adult guy, even though I'm almost triple that age, and now that Senate File 208 is on the table I'm stuck having to find something new to say about it.

My only hope here is that I trust my chances with the Legislature better than I do with the local election voters of Iowa City. "Progressive" in recent years has too often meant taking rights away from people.

“In the five years since the ordinance, the evidence is clear that safety has improved, that our downtown has improved, that our neighborhoods did not implode with crazy house parties, and that our arts and culture and general night life are as vibrant as they’ve ever been,” Iowa City Mayor Matt Hayek said. “The notion that Iowa City’s ordinance forces young people into house parties is a red herring.”
That may be true. Opinions and measurements differ, but my sense is that our Number One Party School rank is no longer merited, and that the city establishment and the University got what they wanted out of the 21 Bar ordinance.  It "works."

But that it "works" is completely beside the point.  The fact that 19 and 20 year olds aren't clamoring for this, and that the University successfully co-opted student leadership by making it a "feminist issue" when it was on the ballot in 2013, is beside the point. Even alcohol is beside the point.  This is not a public safety or public health issue. It's a rights issue.

This is about something bigger than binge drinking rates.  This is about a literal battle in the streets that was fought 45 years ago. This is about a fundamental contradiction in the law.

We fought many culture wars in the 1960s, wars over race and gender and expression, and wars over wars.  Many of those battles are still incomplete.  One of the most important and successful battles was about age.

The de facto standard age of adulthood in that pre-boomer era of in loco parentis was 21.  With one glaring, life or death exception.

Among the many many slogans of the era, one of the most effective was "old enough to fight, old enough to vote."  As early as 1965, it was in the opening verse of a Number One hit, back when Number One hits meant something.  (The competion that week was only "Like A Rolling Stone" and "Help.") It cut to the core democratic question of fairness as effectively as "no taxation without representation" did for the Founding Fathers.

The argument was so effective over the course of a half dozen years that society had to act.  The military, of course, still needed bodies for Vietnam, the second biggest foreign policy mistake of the post World War II era. (Ask me in person about the first.) So rather than raise the draft age up, they silenced the argument by dropping the voting age down - in the strongest way possible.
Amendment XXVI 
The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.
1971, with the draft still going and Vietnam not yet winding down, may have been the only year in American history when the 26th Amendment would have passed.  But it was important enough then that we changed our nation's fundamental law to deal with it.  Even while our nation was torn in half by a war, we reached a super-majority overwhelming consensus.

The battle over age may not feel as important now as it did in 1971. (As it turned out, the mass "anti-war" movement was really only an anti-DRAFT movement.) But amending the Constitution is a statement across the ages, that a principle is important enough to engrave in stone.

And that principle is more than just the literal right to vote included in the text.  In the context of the Vietnam era, it was a statement of values, that 18 year olds had the responsibilities and rights of full adults.

And after the passage of the 26th Amendment, those rights started extending.  Old Enough To Fight, Old Enough To Vote soon became Old Enough To Drink.  That lasted about a decade, till a Reagan-era backlash to All Things Sixties manifested itself in a rider to a highway funding bill that pressured states to roll back those rights. That effort at rollback is still ongoing. (We shouldn't be looking at making the smoking age 19, either.)

Since then, we've lived with a contradiction that we refuse to address or even seriously discuss.

You think I'm over the top here.  Yes, the right to party pales next to the right to vote or the right Not To Be Killed.  (My Dad Rock is still surprisingly relevant.) But sometimes we need to stand up for the trivial as part of the bigger picture, which is why I've been fighting this so hard for so long.

The principle behind the 26th Amendment is that 18 year olds are adults.  Yet under present law, alcohol rather than military service is the glaring exception. An improvement but still a contradiction that needs to be addressed, honestly and openly.

Pretty much everyone privately acknowledges that the 21 year old drinking age doesn't actually stop 19 and 20 year olds from drinking.  Many will admit it isn't even really supposed to.

There's a tacit societal understanding: if you're 19, 20, even 18 as long as you're away at college, and you drink a little, and important here you don't do something stupid, it's not a mortal sin.  If you actually ARE busted, the charge may read Possession Of Alcohol Under Legal Age (PAULA), but your actual offense is Being A Drunk Asshole (BAD-ASS). Yet as long as your drinking is clandestine and low key, our culture winks. It's Kinda Sorta OK and considered normal.

No, the 21 year old drinking age isn't really about 19 and 20 year olds at all. It's about 16 and 17 year olds. It's about keeping 18 year old high school seniors from buying for their junior and sophomore buddies.  And pretty much any lawmaker anywhere will privately acknowledge that, which is why you hear 19 quietly mentioned as a more optimal drinking age "to keep it out of the schools."

But the Constitution, to me, says 18 year olds are adults.  They should be treated as adults if and when they break the law,   They should not be denied adult rights just in case they MIGHT break the law. That's a scene from Minority Report.

Maybe instead we should go Hogwarts and graduate people from high school at 17.  I graduated at 17 so I'll drink a butterbeer to that. It  would be a big cultural change, sure - but not as big as amending the Constitution.

No, this isn't about alcohol at all.

Clearing up that Constitutional contradiction of Old Enough To Vote, Old Enough To Drink, and standing up for that principle that 18 year olds are adults, a matter that was and could again be life or death, is simply more important than the pragmatic effects that the "leaders" of Iowa City and the University praise.

Senate FIle 208 is not the bill I would have introduced. If I was in the Legislature, which I tried for once and failed, I would have gone all the way with an 18 year old drinking age bill.

Senate File 208 is a baby step, granting SOME more rights to SOME young adults, and for that reason I support it and I ask my legislators to support it.  Do I expect that?  There's no question that the University and city will go to the mattresses to stop this - I doubt it has a real chance anyway - but yes. I expect that.

And if they disappoint me... well, then they need to ask themselves some hard questions.

We made a mistake once when we amended the Constitution.  And that mistake involved alcohol.  We realized that mistake so fast that just a decade and a half later the pendulum swung all the way in the other direction.  That even makes our evolution on marriage equality seem pokey.

Prohibition was a failed experiment. And I don't think so, but maybe 18 Is Adult is a failed experiment too.  A lot has changed since 1971.  If we can't trust 18, 19, and 20 year olds with full adult rights, maybe we need to reassess that decision.

At the very least, we need to take the implications of the 26th Amendment and Senate File 208 seriously.  At some point, we need to address the contradiction between 18 and 21.  Right now, we can't even acknowledge there is a contradiction, except in private and off the record.

How old is an adult? "It depends" is NOT an answer,  "highway funding" is an excuse, "it works" is a premise to be rejected.  "Yes, it's a contradiction but it's a contradiction I support" is a bad answer but is at least more honest.

I say 18 is adult.

We can't keep having it both ways.  Either let young adults have a beer, or take away their votes.

But I'll say this: no military recruiter should ever be allowed to talk to anyone who's not old enough to have a beer.  If THAT law ever passed, the drinking age would be 17 the next week.


Chris said...

Did you see this article in Slate arguing that college students are basically children who need protection and so should have fewer rights to such things as free speech? If you don't win people over with your blog posts, you might win them over by showing them that article, since that's where the slippery slope leads.

JSN said...

Was the Slate article in response to extreme contrary views by proposing equally silly policies at the other extreme? Evidently some people thought he was serious.