What is a baseball bat? Is it a piece of sports equipment, used by athletes the world over, a symbol of the unifying power of team sports? Or is it a weapon, used by thugs the world over, a symbol of gang violence? Is it the embodiment of America’s national pastime – or is it something you use to smash a lackey’s head in, a la Al Capone in The Untouchables?
And speaking of being beaten over the head with a blunt instrument, this metaphor is pretty weak – but there is a better one.
The 21st amendment to the American constitution, passed in 1933, repealed Prohibition – the nationwide outlawing of alcohol – but some states still had the power to restrict or simply ban the sale of booze in all its forms. The last state to give up total Prohibition was Mississippi, which stayed dry until 1966. As a result, for those 33 years, alcohol was a hot topic for all Mississippi politicians. However, only one of them is remembered for a speech he gave on the subject.
Noah S. ‘Soggy’ Sweat Jr got his nickname from his mop of hair and its resemblance to the sorghum top, or sugar cane tassel, rather than his physical reaction to the oppressive heat of the deep south. In his life he was a judge, a law professor, and, briefly, as a young man, a state representative in Mississippi. In 1952, towards the end of his term, he gave a speech on the floor of the state legislature concerning alcohol sales, and specifically whiskey. At this stage he was used to being badgered by the Prohibitionists (the ‘drys’) and the repeal side (the ‘wets’) to give a solid opinion on the topic, and had spent long enough wrestling with the subject to come up with one definitive stance.
What he said became known as the ‘If By Whiskey’ speech and it came to symbolise how difficult a subject alcohol is for public representatives to discuss, as it also captures how we can hold two opposing views at the same time. Here it is in full:
My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman’s step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life’s great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.
The speech is witty, poetic and moving. It sums up the pleasures and sorrows of alcohol and asks big questions about how we think about the issue – how often do you hear politicians talking about about the scourge of alcohol, as though the liquid itself was to blame? We talk about the negatives it as though ‘the drink’ takes control of us, like some sort of demonic possession, and exonerates us from any wrongdoing, and erases all choice we might have had in the matter. Yes, it diminishes our ability to make sensible decisions – but we choose to drink it knowing that. In fact, its ability to release us from the pressures of life is one of the things that makes it so important; but, like anything else that gets abused – drugs, food, sex – it does damage. It is in the abusing that all harm is done.
In Ireland we still wring our hands about alcohol abuse, despite the fact that our consumption of it is falling. According to Ireland’s Revenue Commissioners alcohol consumption in Ireland is down 25% since 2001 with consumption of beer and spirits down 40%.
There is always that moment of surprise when you see a table of nations and their alcohol consumption – we are rarely even in the top ten (it’s okay though, we are still higher than the UK).
So we are not the nation of alcoholics we sometimes like to think we are; booze plays a large role in our society, but that is changing. Consumption of alcohol in pubs is down 35 percent in the last decade. Against those figures, wine consumption is up, as we move towards drinking at home, a choice guided as much by the crackdown on drink-driving as it is by changing tastes.
There are bleating voices on both sides of the debate around alcohol – from the industry there is the usual cry of ‘blessed are the job creators’, as they roll out all the economic contributions they make to the State.
On the other side is the health campaigners, who bemoan the costs to our health service and to our society.
Like the If-By-Whiskey speech, both arguments are right – alcohol contributes huge sums to the economy, not least in taxes. Ireland has the highest priced alcohol in the EU, with the the second highest taxes on alcohol in the EU, according to Eurostat and the EU Commission. In 2014, the exchequer received €1.42 from every pint costing €4.64, (or 30.6% of the price) consumed in bars; €16.41 or 68.4% of the price of a €24 off-licence bottle of whiskey; and €4.50 or 64% of the price of a €7 off-licence bottle of wine. So it is already quite expensive to drink here, without even considering the flawed model of minimum unit pricing, itself a blunt tool that is effectively a class-based prohibition.
So taxes are high here, but the argument that ‘you can buy whiskey cheap in America so why not here’ is a facile one – try losing your job in America, or getting sick, or testing the state supports in any capacity before you praise their taxation regime. Booze has always been the taxman’s whipping boy – the very first tax ever levied by the American government was on whiskey, and it lead to what became known as the Whiskey Rebellion. But the tax stood, and it was used to build their then fledgling nation. Taxes on alcohol are high in Ireland, but we have a high standard of living here – as someone who spent eight months on the dole last year, I was startled at just how generous the state was to my family and I.
Also, for the consumer to assume tax cuts would equate to price cuts is naive – particularly where whiskey is concerned, as like Stella Artois (before it went for sales volume over value), the average bottle of triple-distilled liquid silk is deliberately ‘reassuringly expensive’. And to those who say that the whiskey taxes are killing the industry here, the distillery boom we are seeing in the past four years show that high taxes on whiskey are no barrier to business.
So taxes are high, prices are relatively high, yet some people still drink too much – so how do you stop them? This is where the real issues surrounding alcohol come into play, and where Soggy Sweat’s words really ring true, because alcohol, like the Cenobites in Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, is an angel to some and a demon to others: It all comes down to choice.
National drug and alcohol policy is often based around the broad premise that substance abuse is about pleasure, rather than pain, or rather the escape from pain – subsequently, legislation often deals in broad strokes, such as minimum unit pricing or curfews on sales. These laws are a simplistic way of dealing with an incredibly complex issue, because – as pointed out in Ken Burns’s masterful documentary Prohibition – you cannot legislate for morals. You cannot outlaw dysfunction, you cannot go into every home and ensure that everyone has sufficient coping mechanisms to not fall into some sort of addiction.
A republic has to allow its citizens to make poor choices, even if those choices affect those around them and society as a whole. Walk the main street of any small town in Ireland and you will see just how good we are at making bad choices – chippers, pubs, offies and bookies; all offering products or services that are fine in small doses, but which can ruin lives.
My parent never drank much, my dad did a bit, my mum not at all. Like many Irish kids I was given a drop of whiskey for a sore tooth now and again, but generally I grew up in a pretty dry, intensely religious household. I started secretly drinking when I was 13, and was a frequent binge drinker by the time I was 15. I would steal money, go to Cork and buy flagons of cider and sit in Bishop Lucey Park drinking with a rotating cast of crusties, new age travellers, the destitute and the deranged. When I left school I worked in a kitchen, as cheffing was an industry where you can drink yourself into oblivion and nobody would take much notice. It is a period of my life I don’t look back on with any pleasure – it was a relentlessly grim cycle of broken relationships and self destruction. There was no joy, and if it had continued I have no doubt I would be dead now.
But things changed. I went back to college and although I still drank, it was in a fun, social way. As I got older my outings got rarer and rarer, and nowadays I just love a whiskey of two at the weekends.
Since I’ve been living with my dad and looking after him, I’ve been drinking more – in fact, almost every night. I spend my days looking after him, making his food and helping him about the house, managing hospital visits and dispensing his medication. It’s all straightforward stuff, and I am happy to do it; I’ve been looking after him for three months, he looked after me for about 40 years. My wife and kids had planned to move in, but we soon realised that the cacophony of our family would be too much for him, so I am here alone, watching him slowly die. His mind is starting to go, and I can feel him slipping away from me. Most days I just spend staring at him, missing him even though he is still here.
At night I go upstairs and open another one of the bottles I had been saving for a special occasion and have a good cut off it. And after the first few sips, I can feel the weight of sadness lift slightly, and I relax, even for an hour or two, and I drift from where I am. I watch a few Norm Macdonald videos or goof off on Twitter, and it takes me away. As Judge Sweat pointed out, whiskey enables me to magnify my joy, and my happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, one of my life’s great tragedies.
There are many who would point out that I am committing that terrible act – using alcohol as a crutch. But I need a crutch. If I don’t have something to quell my mind before bed, I would spend hours lying there, mentally drafting eulogies, occasionally sobbing. Whiskey is a salve on my emotional wounds. If I didn’t have that, I would be doing a lot worse than I am.
In my youth I used alcohol to harm myself – now I am using it to heal. But it is often used in this manner – in many hospitals alcohol is prescribed. I spoke to a doctor recently who told me that as a junior doc with the NHS in the early Nineties he used to regularly prescribe sherry, whiskey and Guinness to patients.
A physio told me that when she trained in a London hospital there was a patient in intensive care for a long period of time. His mood dipped and so he was prescribed a whiskey each evening. It worked, and his mood lifted. It didn’t stop him dying, but it made his demise that little bit more bearable.
In fact, Marymount Hospice – where my dad is headed soon – has a drinks trolley for patients, where you can have a pint or a whiskey of an evening.
Alcohol is a bridge from our own profane humanity to a divine plane where our troubles are diminished. For some, their troubles are such that they never want to return. For the rest of us, it’s simply a welcome few hours of escape.
Like a baseball bat, alcohol is a weapon if you choose to use it that way. Used right, it is one of life’s great joys, a thought reflected by the American baseball star Tug McGraw. After signing a lucrative contract, he was asked how he would spend his money. His reply was: “Ninety percent I’ll spend on good times, women and Irish whiskey. The other ten percent I’ll probably waste.”