Bars are about more than drinking
By Daniel Levin
Salt Lake Tribune
Posted:02/09/2009 07:31:00 AM MST
Several years ago, a graduate student told me that he was attending a conference in Madison, Wisconsin. Having lived in Madison while attending the University of Wisconsin, I told him that he'd never meet friendlier people and to enjoy himself. When he returned, I asked him how it had gone.
"Terrible," he said, "nobody ever wanted to talk about anything after the conference sessions."
I was surprised, and asked him whether they had invited him afterward for a beer.
"Oh yeah, every afternoon, but, you know, I don't drink." Suppressing my laughter, I could only say, "There's some pretty good root beer in Wisconsin, too."
In Madison, like every other place I know, one does not go to a bar simply to drink. One goes to a bar to be with other people, and perhaps to drink. It is far less expensive and more efficient to get drunk at home.
The current debate about what to do with Utah's peculiar institution of private clubs is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what actually occurs in bars and in restaurants which serve alcohol. While some people do, at times, overindulge, the vast majority of patrons are social drinkers. To be a social drinker does not simply mean that one does not drink often or to excess. It means that drinking is simply part of one's life. And, as an old expression goes, "life is with people."
Bars are, first and foremost, centers of community, but they do not stand alone. Alcohol has long served as the quintessential symbol of religious community. For three millennia, Jews have celebrated Passover by drinking four cups of wine to celebrate their emergence as a people newly freed from bondage in Egypt.
For two millennia, Christians have made wine the center of the communion ritual, in which they not only accept Christ as their savior, but enter into symbolic union with the larger community of Christian believers.
Drinking establishments have long served as incubators of America's traditions of democratic self-government and our distinctive culture. There is no better place to find genuine political debate than a pub. The American rebellion against Great Britain was largely planned in taverns, and many of the most important discussions that led to drafting of the U.S. Constitution took place in City Tavern, across from Independence Hall, during the Constitutional Convention.
Speak-easies gave birth to jazz, Southern "juke joints" spawned the blues and honky-tonks nurtured country music, all authentic expressions of America's genius. American comedy, essential to our national sanity, is as much a product of nightclubs as it is of vaudeville.
Utah's current private club laws are most often derided because they are so inconvenient and so irrational as to be maddening. But I believe that they are most offensive for their chilling effect on Americans' constitutional right of free association. That right, foundational to any democracy, protects our ability to gather wherever we would please, and with whomever we may wish, to argue politics, to dance, to listen to music, to cheer for a football team on the big screen, or to laugh at a comic.
In a free society, the state may not demand that we account for our whereabouts or the identities of our associates. But in Utah, the state requires that private clubs compile membership lists, and make those lists available to the police for any reason which the police may devise. Recent proposals to replace those lists with centralized, computerized databases, now seemingly shelved, were not worthy of a free society.
Current proposals to require scanners to guard against the use of fake identification cards should ensure that that information is protected against disclosure for any purpose other than the proper enforcement of the liquor laws.
A free society trusts its citizens. That trust always involves risk, but one cannot eliminate risk without extinguishing liberty. A free society also requires an active civil society and a vibrant public culture. Bars and taverns serve as centers of community and cultural life. For that reason, they should be just as important to non-drinkers as to drinkers.
For even those who do not imbibe should be free to join in the arguments, watch the game, shake a leg or laugh at a comic without fear that they will have to register their names with the state. There's some pretty good root beer in Utah as well.
Dan Levin teaches political philosophy and constitutional law at the University of Utah.