There is an interest in this article that Chesterton would readily grasp. Beer was among his favorite human things. The grasping tyranny of big rationalized profit-making corporations was among his least favorite human things.
Or again, the virtue of the common Englishman was among his favorite of all human things; and the corruption of that virtue was among his most detested.
Or again, the private and English ownership of the means of English beer production was among his favorite things; while the distant and abstract ownership of the means of production of beer in England, we may surmise, was among his least favorite.
“… And beer was drunk with reverence, as it ought to be.”
Well, there ain’t much reverence left in the world nowadays; or maybe it is that there is too much reverence — for unworthy things. Deep within the murk of that tiresome épater le bourgeois material which forms the presuppositions of the cultural Left, one now and then notices an extraordinary fact. The Left is full of puritans and busybodies: despots of peculiar prudery. Nanny Bloomberg exerts his pedantic will to strictly constrain the dire public menace of large sodas. From the pages of antique Leftist periodicals, we find men fulminating like the most self-righteous puritan divines of 17th century Massachusetts, against the excess and vice of Wall Street. Nor do our Leftists, so hair-trigger to observe the cadence of Scripture or a prayer in school, deign to object when a tedious preachment citing “faith without works is dead” or “the least of these,” implies with terrific pedantry that endorsing the welfare state must be an iron article of faith for all true Christians. (That last phenomenon is treated with near perfection in Hunter Baker’s “Secularists Sit One Out in the Bible Belt.”)
And here in Washington Monthly we have a very well-written and engaging report on the consolidation of the adult beverage industry, which is framed around a plea for temperance set up by the object lesson of a Great Britain prostrate and inebriated by wicked beer corporations.
It is not altogether clear (certainly this article does not even enter into a rational argument for the idea) that cheap, corporate, rationalized beer is truly at the root of the corruption of English virtue. The English have certainly increased their alcohol consumption to alarming levels. Public intoxication is a major problem, along with the concomitant lawlessness, brutish behavior and sexual misery.
But it is curious that so puritanical a tone is taken as regards English drunkenness, with so little reflection on the proposition, which here appears more as a presupposition, that cheap corporate beer is the cause of English drunkenness.
Skeptical readers might share Chesterton’s prejudices for English and for all local beer, might well share his outrage at virtue subverted, might even share his instinctive suspicion of the big rational corporation: might share all these things and still be at a loss as to why we should suppose that it is the parsimony of beer prices, and the vertical integration of beer firms, that mostly accounts for English alcoholism.
This is indeed the presupposition of the article. England is sinking under drunkenness; and this is laid at the feet of the business enterprises that produce liquor. Moreover, this whole tale of corporate consolidation issuing in alcoholism is presented as an object lesson for America and her beer industry.
There is no hint of attention to dissolution of the family, to the millions of children who lack fathers who acknowledge their existence, much less undertake to protect them against demon rum. There is no mention of the squalor of pop-culture. There is not a word about the celebrities who drink themselves to death or prison in their 20s. No, it’s the producers and suppliers of beverages who have by ruthless maneuver sunk the people in vice.
Were a churchman to rise and exhort the men to temperance, he might be greeted with sneers and annoyance. I suspect that few liberal folks would warm to a public call from public men to engage not “in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.” But let the same exhortation be couched in terms of public health, and adorned with an alluring tale of industrialism run amok, and suddenly the modern liberal is all ears.
Chesterton could easily elucidate, however, how virtue (or its want) is of a piece. We can no more expect an insensately promiscuous people to discipline themselves against strong drink, than we can expect a drunk to resist a temptress. A man who enjoys his vices in explicit defiance of older norms, is hardly one susceptible to moral reformation by pedantic lectures on healthy living. He who rejects strict moral discipline is unlikely to endure strict hygienic discipline. (Los Angeles tested this proposition when it passed a law requiring prophylactic hygiene for pornographic actors, which has touched off an ostentatious revolt against the oppressive and liberty-destroying law. The pornographers have threatened to take their business elsewhere.)
So the old exhortations must one day fall on attentive ears, and penitent hearts. Reform of the political economy of drink will be preceded by contrition and moral reformation, or it will never come at all. When the old admonitions — “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness, let it not even be named among you,” “do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit” — when these admonitions begin again to be heeded, the global beer corporations may suddenly find renewed resistance to their marketing lies. When liberal politicians return to the moral seriousness of the young Abraham Lincoln, lecturing earnestly and subtly on temperance, without even proposing new laws or health regulations, then perhaps progress against alcoholism and hooliganism will commence.
For the man suddenly, or in any other way, to break off from the use of drams, who has indulged in them for a long course of years, and until his appetite for them has become ten or a hundred fold stronger, and more craving, than any natural appetite can be, requires a most powerful moral effort. In such an undertaking, he needs every moral support and influence, that can possibly be brought to his aid, and thrown around him. And not only so; but every moral prop, should be taken from whatever argument might rise in his mind to lure him to his backsliding. When he casts his eyes around him, he should be able to see, all that he respects, all that he admires, and all that he loves, kindly and anxiously pointing him onward; and none beckoning him back, to his former miserable “wallowing in the mire.”
Thus Lincoln, a young Whig at 33 years old. That sort of classical liberalism has perished. Instead we have Nanny Bloomberg and the dour ministers of pedantic public health, recently provided by national legislation a fuller compass for their intrusive ministrations; which shall undoubtedly prove largely impotent against old serpents of consumptive sin.