July 05, 2009

Control locally!

In Australian Outback, Efforts to Restrict Alcohol:
Since Halls Creek recently became the latest Aboriginal town in the Australian outback to restrict alcohol sales, its doctors and police officers have been getting more sleep thanks to a steep dropoff in nighttime brawls.

The scores of Aboriginal men and women who milled around the one liquor store in the afternoon and proceeded, at dusk, to the pub across town are now gone. Some have decamped for the nearest towns with full access to alcohol, hundreds of miles away across a flat, shrub-covered land where the monotony is broken up only by the occasional giant baobab tree and kangaroo roadkill.

In the 19th century per capita consumption of alcohol was much higher than it is today in the United States. The social disruption which were the consequences of these behaviors resulted in various temperance movements, driven by mass mobilization of women who bore the brunt of household violence fueled by alcohol. Though outright prohibition was a failure, over the decades a cultural change did occur in the United States so that consumption of alcohol decreased in quantity, as well as quality (away from hard liquors toward beers).

It is a fact that different cultures and peoples seem to have disparate responses toward alcohol.  Alcohol dehydrogenase related genes do vary from population to population, with the peoples of the Mediterranean generally exhibiting the biological profile which reduces the likelihood of extreme physiological responses. In contrast the populations of northern Europe have genetic profiles which would suggest that they would get drunk more easily with the same quantity of alcohol. Whether by coincidence or not it also happens to be that public drunkenness and excessive consumption is more acceptable in Norden than it is in southern Europe. On wonders as to the synergistic effects of genetic propensities and long winter nights in a place like Finland. But not coincidentally the Nordic nations have been also been on the forefront of taxing alcohol at extremely highly levels, so that there has been a noticeable shift in the frequency of alcohol related illnesses over the past century, easily evident when crossing the border between Finland and Russia. But these local responses to local problems run into the reality that the open borders of the European Union have fostered a boom in alcohol tourism.

But the rollback of localism in Europe pales in comparison to the paradoxes for a universal liberal vision which confronts one in the case of indigenous communities embedded within Western nations. In The 10,000 year explosion the authors made the case that the spread of agriculture resulted in a biological revolution. Peoples who have had long experience with agriculture have adapted very directly to the selective pressures, in particular in their relationship to what they eat. In Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity the ecologist Gary Nabhan shows the limitations of looking at food as a commodity which can be easily exchanged between populations as if there is a common currency with the same values.

Though gustatory concerns are clearly primal, the issues which they highlight have more abstract philosophical ramifications. A liberal order where all are equal under the law presumes a certain level of interchangeability between individuals and peoples. Though equality before the law does not entail equality in all characters, the nature of the differences in the latter have long been under debate or unspecified. Current findings from the human sciences are changing this state, specifying the very differences which have long loomed on the margins of egalitarian assumptions. In regards to alcohol as a descriptive matter it seems likely that a laissez-faire regime would have radically different consequences among Australian Aborigines and Sicilians. As it happens the city of Adelaide has a very large Italian population, and so in South Australia you have a jurisdiction where both groups are impacted by the same laws. Total prohibition may increase the life span of Australian Aborigines, but marginally decrease that of Italian Australians. The most extreme case of the conflict between universal liberal equality and reality occurs in the Andaman Islanders, where the isolated native populations have been physically separated from the Indian settlers. The rationale behind the separation was to prevent the extinction of the Andaman Islander tribes in the face of the pathologies of agriculture and modern man, of which they were innocent. But one casualty of such action is the innocent assumption that a universal order entails universal bliss.

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