Politics Divide, Beer Unites

A tentative hypothesis.


The title of this post is a little axiom I’ve repeated for a dozen-odd years. It occurred to me in juxtaposition to the writing I had been doing in the mid-aughts, which was tilted heavily toward politics. It seems almost quaint now, but after several years it started to feel like that world was getting toxically personal and petty. I actually started this blog so I would have something positive and uncontroversial to write about when I wasn’t discussing tax rates.

What I came to understand about beer over the coming years, as it slowly supplanted politics in my writing, was that it has an ancient lineage—at least 13,700 years—of performing a critical social function. Beer is an intoxicant. At low levels of consumption, it creates a sensation of conviviality and human connection. But its mind-altering capacity also creates a magical, transcendent state of mind, so it’s been used in connection with that other great social uniter, religion. For these many millennia, people have used it as a social glue, as an element of ritual, as a simple, warming tipple to share with friends. Unlike spirits or wine, the beverage itself can’t be separated from the social dimension of drinking it, and so when we talk about “beer,” we’re really talking about community. The depths of beer plunge right to the foundation of culture. (It has a dark side, true, but let’s leave that aside for this discussion.)

Contrast that with politics, which at base is a fight over who gets to set the rules. That’s true whether we’re talking about warring kings or voting citizens. It’s a zero-sum proposition: only one person/group wins the keys to the government, and those in opposition lose. Even in relatively sedate modern democracies, every election is the moment when voters choose who will make the rules for the next two or four years, and elections have serious, sometimes life-altering consequences. The structure of politics, the will to power, creates inevitable divisions, tribalism, and can lead to oppression, torture, and death—or at the very least hurt feelings and resentment. And that creates the energy for a counter-reaction, and the wheel keeps on turning. The paradox in democracies is that elections are the things that holds a society together, but also the stressor that may tear it apart. Unless there are some mediating forces.

I have just returned from a Buddhist retreat, so I’m feeling all generous-spirited and warm. (If history is any guide, this won’t survive the week, so I had better get this off my chest quickly.) I was a little dismayed to see beer Twitter was fractious and tetchy when I booted it up after five days. I suppose this is not surprising. Americans in general are fractious and tetchy these days, and so we should expect it to bleed into beer. But since I am feeling optimistic and since it is the week of GABF, I’d like to repeat this old axiom, dinged and dented though it may be. Beer has the capacity to be that mediating force, and in my perhaps rosy-lensed vision, is.

Beer is a pleasant, gastronomically-versatile little beverage. Because we’re human, we can make it controversial (ownership! kids in pubs! hazy IPAs! glitter! prices!), but ultimately it’s just not. It’s tasty, fun to drink, and provides an opportunity for diverse groups of people to come together and find common ground in their own humanity. When you consider the myriad expressions of human culture, very, very few have this capacity or the near-universal appeal beer does. It is, or can be, an antidote to our divisions. We may disagree about whom the devil is (Trump? Pelosi?), but by God we can agree this IPA kicks ass.

Politics divide, beer unites. Right?

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MeditationJeff Alworth