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In Vino Demi-tasse Post by :Mark_Austin Category :Essays Author :Charles Hanson Towne Date :October 2011 Read :1363

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In Vino Demi-tasse

The Young-Old Philosopher and I were sitting in one of the innumerable restaurants in New York where the sanctity of the law is about as much considered as a bicycle ride up Mt. Etna. At the next table--indeed, all around us--rich red wine was being poured into little cups.

"The new motto of America should be 'In vino demi-tasse,'" my friend said, smiling. And I quite agreed with him. For it is being done everywhere; in the most exalted circles, and in the lowest. Poor old human nature, which an organized minority are so bent upon changing overnight, cannot be altered; and, all the emphasis in a supposedly free country having been placed upon not drinking, the prohibitionists are wondering why so many of us care for liquid refreshment.

There is too much verboten in America today. I can remember the time, not so long ago, when no dinner-party was counted a success unless four or five cocktails were served before we sat down at the table. But that era passed. It was soon evident that such foolishness would lead to grave disaster--if not to the grave; and the young business man who was seen to consume even one glass of beer at luncheon was frowned upon, catalogued as unsteady, even in the face of the fact that perhaps the most efficient people in the world were automatic beer-drinkers.

As to drinking, in America we had other ideas. Big Business, which has become such a potent factor among us, and more a part of our national consciousness than Art and Letters ever will be, of its own volition placed a ban upon immoderate drinking; and the sane among us--of whom there were still many--gladly fell in line, and either went periodically upon the water-wagon or took a nip only occasionally when the cares of life weighed too heavily and insistently upon us.

Why, then, the Reformers? Why the Uplift Workers? Why the Extremists? Not content with a great and wise people working out their own salvation from within, they must step forth in solemn battalions, and make us pure and holy--from without.

We resent them. There is no reason why an entire nation should be indicted for the sins and failings of a few. It would be quite as sensible to forbid connubial bliss because there are a handful of libertines in the world.

The cry goes up, however, that the next generation will be so much better because of our enforced good behavior now. I am afraid that I am not enough of an altruist to care so definitely about the morals of a race unborn. I feel that my children, looking over the files of our newspapers, as they sip their light wine and beer, may smile and say, "Poor grandpa! He had so little self-control that the Government had to put the screws on him and his friends. Too bad! They must have been a fast set in his day. And yet--he left us a pretty good heritage of health and strength. We wonder if he was such an awful devil as history makes out."

The truth is that nothing, in moderation, ever hurt anybody. That is why the wise among us are against Prohibition and strongly for Temperance. Normal men do not like to be coddled. If coddling is done, however, they like to pick their coddlers. We don't like a lean and sour-visaged Prohibitionist making a fuss over us, feeling our pulse, taking our temperature, smoothing our brow. The whole trouble with the world today, as a sane man views it, is that there has been altogether too much coddling of the physically and mentally unfit.

We have become, through drifting, a nation of hypocrites. We make laws so fast that the bewildered citizen cannot follow them. We add amendment after amendment to our Constitution, and then laugh at what we have done, the while we secretly rebel. We have few convictions, and we refuse to face issues squarely and honestly. We pretend to be virtuous before the rest of the world; but we are like the ostrich which hides its head in the sands. We pretend that, just as the eugenists think of the physical attributes of the coming generation, we consider the mental attributes--and we turn around and raise a race of bootleggers. We permit our enormous foreign population to see us at our legislative work; and then we go proudly and sanctimoniously to restaurants and allow Italian, German and French waiters to pour red wine into our demi-tasses.

Oh, we are not in our cups--only in our half-cups. It would all be very amusing were it not so terribly serious. For we are rapidly floating toward trouble; and, hypocritically enough, we will not admit it. When it is said, since the tragedy of Prohibition, that the reformers will next snatch our cigars and cigarettes out of our mouths, we shrug our shoulders, smile and pass on, saying, "Oh, no! that would be going too far!"--in the face of what already has been accomplished in this land of the spree and the home of the grave.

Yes, we have become grave indeed. For there can be no doubt that there is a feeling of great unhappiness and unrest in America now. One hears the most solid citizens saying, "I do not try to save any more; I merely live from day to day, hoping against hope that things will right themselves, and that the old order will somehow return."

Who gets a long-term lease nowadays? Those of us who are old enough to remember the simplicity and peace of the golden 'Eighties and 'Nineties are appalled at the nervous tension and complexities of this hour. We are all catalogued and tagged, just as they are in that Prussia we so recently and fervently despised; and we are hounded by income-tax investigators, surrounded by a horde of spies who search our luggage, pry into our kitchens to see if we are making home brew, raided in restaurants--and laughed at by king-ridden and shackled Europeans.

It isn't pleasant to realize that you are burdened with taxes partly to cover the salaries of Federal Officers whose delicate duty it is to spy upon you. And then when you walk out and talk to the police-man on your street, he will whisper in your ear that he knows where he can get you some delicious ale, and see to it that it is safely delivered at your door. This is the America, deny it as we will, that we are living in today. I confess that I hang my head a bit, and am ashamed to look a Frenchman in the face.

Not long ago, at a dinner, I asked a certain politician--I refuse to grace him with the name of statesman, though he has ambitions to be known as such--why, if he believed in the Volstead Act, he still consumed whiskey. His answer was intended to be amusing; to me it was disgraceful. Said he: "I am drinking as much as I can in order to lessen the supply for the other fellow."

And just a while back I went to a banquet at a country club near New York. Two policemen in uniform were sent by the local authorities to "guard the place" while much liquor was poured. These minions of the sacred law were openly served with highballs, and laughed at the Constitution of the United States, the while they drank. Everyone at that party was loud in denunciation of Prohibition and what has come in its wake, yet went on dancing with the casual remark that it was of no consequence that they broke the law, since everyone was doing it--and everyone always would.

Uphold the law, no matter what is injected into it, I have heard people cry. That, it seems to me, is mere Teutonic stupidity, and has no part in the attitude of thinking men and women in a land like America. I suppose, arguing thus, that if a law were passed tomorrow prohibiting the carrying of, say, hand-bags or canes, they would feel it incumbent upon themselves, as good Americans, to fall into line, bow the knee and whisper meekly, "All right, O most beloved country! I obey!"

A good American, as I understand it, is not one who ignorantly stands for the letter of the law, no matter what that law may be. A good American is one who tries to set his country right; one who looks beyond the present ungenerous attitude of the fanatics; one who visualizes the future and prays that our liberty may not be further jeopardized, for the good of the generations that are to follow us.

We fought to rid the world of autocracy, yet we have suddenly become the most autocratic nation on earth. Prohibition is a symbol of the death of freedom. The issue at stake is as clear-cut as taxation without representation; and our legislators should remember a certain well-known Boston tea-party. There would have been no United States of America unless a few honest men with sound convictions had rebelled and protested against tyranny. The right kind of rebel makes the right kind of citizen.

I have heard a few people liken one's duty in the matter of the draft to the Prohibition law. If we obeyed a summons to fight, whether we liked fighting or not, we should likewise obey the law regarding drinking, they contend. The two things are as separated as the Poles. In 1914, and thereafter, civilization itself was at stake; and that man would have been blind indeed who did not see the stern and clear-cut issues before us all. We leaped to arms because we wanted to protect humanity, because the death-knell of democracy was sounding. Prohibition, these same people would tell us, should be enforced to save poor, weak humanity and civilization again, and we should fight to that end. Yet as long as the world has been moving, civilized man has been consuming a certain amount of alcohol, and has been in no serious danger of going down to disaster. We have progressed through the ages, despite our cheerful cups of wine; and though of course a few imbeciles have dropped from the line, the rest of us have been none the worse--in fact, sometimes a little better--for our occasional libations. Let anyone deny this who has ever, for a moment even, been in Arcady! And the dreadful and incontrovertible fact remains that the sober nations have not proved themselves superior to those who drink in moderation.

Who are happy over Prohibition? First, the Prohibitionists themselves, and, secondly, the bootleggers. The more the lid is clamped on in our great cities, the more rejoicing goes on in that mysterious inner and under circle which dispenses liquor, and will continue to dispense it, I fear, until the end of time. Whenever there is a "drive" on in New York to "mop up the place," prices soar to the skies, and the illicit trade waxes brisker than ever. No wonder the bootleggers grow happy--and rich; and evade the income tax which the rest of us must pay.

I am not sympathetic toward those who say that they have been driven to excessive drinking because a certain obnoxious law has been passed. The only way to fight Prohibition is to fight it soberly; it is the jingled and jangled arguments of bar-room bores that hurt the cause of the men and women who are moderate drinkers, and who wish with all their hearts to see a return to common sense in our country.

We Americans never do anything piecemeal. Probably at the root of all our strange fanaticism about drink was the thought that the saloon had better go; that it was time for such foul places to disappear. The pendulum had to swing all the way. If it would swing back a little; if the Government would step in and control the liquor traffic, do away with spirits, except for medicinal purposes, and give the people light wine and beer, a truce could be declared over night. Drunkenness should be made a prison offence. No matter who the offender against public decency is he should be lodged in jail. Whether one is a so-called gentleman coming out of his club, or the meanest tramp in the streets, he should be punished. There would be no visible drunkenness if a law like this were passed and rigorously enforced.

I am afraid that so long as grapes grow on vines and apples on trees; so long as fermentation is one of Nature's processes, there can be no such thing as Prohibition. And the Biblical justification for drinking is pleasant reading for those who like, now and then, a little wine at their dinner tables. Yet there are fanatics who rise up and shout that the wine Christ caused to appear at the marriage feast of Cana was not intoxicating. What divination is theirs which makes them so positive? If water was just as good, why did not water remain in the casks?

If we would spend more time making laws that worked for good, rather than for evil--and Graft is a great evil; if we would realize that it is not so much our concern to make the other fellow good as to make him happy, as Stevenson so beautifully puts it--then, I say, we would be better employed than we are today with our foolish, fussy bills and acts, mandates, precepts and restrictions.

I believe firmly in local option in all things; but there is no reason why New York, or any other great city, should live as Kansas and Idaho live. I prefer New York because a big city gives me a spiritual uplift that a prairie town does not. It is my privilege to live where I desire. I like to hear fine music, to come in contact with intellectuals; to go to plays that are worth while; to read books that satisfy my soul. I find such a life in New York. I have no quarrel with the man who prefers the silence and loneliness of forests and plains. He may be far happier than I. But I do insist that if I let him alone, he also should let me alone. Throbbing cities thrill me: cities with their glamour, their wonder, their enchantment, their dreams of agate and stone, their lofty towers that plunge to the very skies and kiss the clouds. I happen to like the innocent laughter in a glass of champagne. You may call it wicked hilarity. But the Continental manner of living appeals to me. I like the color and warmth and fervor of life; and people who drink red wine with their meals seem to me to be more cosmopolitan than those who do not. All this seems part of the pageant of life to me. I am not provincial, and I do not care to be made provincial by unintelligent and unimaginative law-makers.

It may be that I am entirely wrong. I do not know. But I do know that it seems utterly unreasonable to force me to abstain from wine if I wish it, just because there are a few heavy imbibers of whiskey in the world. I think it is a far more serious matter to have practically all of us law-breakers than to have one-half of one per cent of us drunkards.

Let us have done with insincere, inelastic laws, and get back to wisdom and truth and sanity.

(The end)
Charles Hanson Towne's essay: In Vino Demi-Tasse

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