Barnard’s Law

Pursuant to a conversation I had at our departmental drinks night last Wednesday—by which I mean, a conversation I’ve now had with shockingly little variation about four-hundred times since I went vegan—I have decided to officially coin my first sociological theory:

Barnard’s Law: In any heated discussion between a vegan and a non-vegan over animal rights, the non-vegan will eventually begin listing his or her favorite types of meat (usually, though not always, beginning with bacon).  At this point, the non-vegan has officially conceded that he or she lacks any compelling argument, but the vegan should probably give up on the debate anyway.

Example (rough transcription of this Wednesday):

Me:  “…and that’s why I believe that the morally relevant distinction should be sentience, not species.”

Non-Vegan Coursemate: “The other night I had lamb with pears.”

Cf. Godwin’s Law

Festive, If Ugly

Coca is shitty.

I mean, it could be better I guess.

Believe it or not, I chose this adjective to describe the town where I am staying—also known as Puerto Francisco de Orellana—carefully.  It would not, for example, be fair to say that Coca is poor.  In fact, according to my interviewees, Coca is, thanks to oil money, pretty well off, a claim that seems corroborated by a high number of new pick-up trucks and preponderance of electronics stores.  It would be similarly inaccurate to say that Coca is particularly dangerous, at least compared to Quito or Guayaquil.

That leaves shitty.  The city has grown explosively in recent years because of an influx of highlanders who came to the rainforest looking for work and land.  The city is bursting out of its seams, a chaotic and jumbled mass of shoddily constructed buildings and half-paved streets, with no central square or parks to speak of.  I’m fairly sure that if someone vomited on a topographical map, played connect the dots with the splatter, and built roads along the lines, the result would be a more logical layout.  I suppose Houston Texas doesn’t have zoning either, but Coca seems worse thanks to the stark contrast between the natural beauty of the selva and the excrescences of human creation.

I suppose that as long as I’m heartlessly ripping into the city, I might as well put it all out there.  As a ‘fronteir town’ in Ecuador’s Wild Wild East, Coca has something of a rough edge.  The city is absolutely filthy, one part thanks to a careless citizenry and another part thanks to a constant drizzle that turns everything into mud.  The hotels are all chucked into the center of town, where the noise of tanker trucks and buses crossing the Napo River to the south is just constant enough to drown out the non-stop shouting and reggaton of the bars catering to oil-boom bachelors.  My position on the city is further biased by the utter absence of any food that isn’t greasy fried chicken.

While I’m on some level writing this just for the sake of description (I’m in the Amazon—which is awesome—so I’m not really expecting much in the way of sympathy), I’m also writing because tonight, Francisco de Orellana is celebrating.  I’ve yet to really get a handle on what this festival is about, though I think it is marking the time when two administrative cantons were combined to create the present jurisdiction (Can I get a “hell yes?”).  Whatever the reason, though, the Coco-ans seem to be having a good time: the streets are full of food stands and beer carts, music is blaring, and a nearby deserted lot has been turned into a gigantic dance floor.

AidWatch—the blog of NYU Professor and development-hater* William Easterly—had a great post recently about how poor people in rural Ghana do not, primarily, think of themselves as poor people.  They think of themselves, above all else, as Christians.  That’s not to say that they are ignorant of their disadvantaged position in the grand scheme of the world; just that they don’t identify by it.  I suppose the same could be said of the Orellanans.   Perhaps when I see them, I see residents-of-a-really-shitty-town, but if I asked them, I’m sure they would describe them as De Oriente or Catholic or Kichwa or Ecuadorian or any number of other things.  They may know that their town isn’t the greatest, but tonight they are celebrating it anyway, because it’s theirs.

That’s enough thought for now.  The Meringue is heating up—it’s time to make like Freshman Year at Princeton and go awkwardly dance with myself.

* Three-fourths kidding.  Everyone should read Easterly’s book, The White Man’s Burden.

My Daily Collective Action Problem

I am somewhat infatuated with Quito’s bus system.  Perhaps it is a product of growing up in the mass-transit-is-for-wimps-and-commies American west, but I think I am peculiarly appreciative of the fact that, for $.25, I can traverse the entire length of Quito relatively swiftly while leaving it to someone else to deal with this country’s insane, horn-happy drivers.

Of course, observing 112 people crammed into an area the size of my dining room is also bound to spawn some interesting questions.  For example, how loudly can the teenagers play reggaeton through their cell-phones before the abuelitas start giving them dirty looks?  In how few syllables can the driver provide all the information he or she is required to give (current stop – watch your step – doors closing – next stop)?  And, while it’s totally clear than men always give up their seats for women and able-bodied women always give up their seats for disabled-women, who has to stand when it comes to a pregnant woman versus a woman with an infant versus an old woman with a cane? (It’s a bit like trying to figure out the rules to ‘rock-paper-scissors’ when playing with my brother, who generally chooses ‘gun’).

Lest I wax whimsically, once again, about ‘informal regulation’ and other sociological nonsense, I should add that Quito’s buses are also unbridled chaos.  The problem stems from the fact that the bus stops at a given station for—at maximum—15 seconds.  Given how crammed the buses are at rush hour (seriously, the green line in Manhattan has nothing on EcoVilla), this means that your only hope to get off the bus at the proper stop is to constantly fight your way towards the door, irrespective of where your stop actually is and how many people are trying to get on.  The result is somewhat comical, at least when you’re not getting crushed.  Around the door, it’s impossible to breathe, but in the aisles five feet away, there’s ample space (I literally saw a woman standing up and knitting).

It’s really a pretty classic prisoner’s dilemma.  If everyone just stepped away from the door, we could all ride in (relative) comfort.  But the best situation is if you stand by the door and everyone else stands back.  Knowing this, of course, everyone crowds the exit.

I am really quite certain that if I could convince everyone to stand in the aisle until their stop, I could save the world.

Yo Bus Attendant: Write My Thesis

I overcame—or, at least, semi-successfully confronted—two of my biggest fears today: talking in Spanish, and talking to strangers about my research (or anything, really).  After six exhausting hours of language class (it’s hard to say that talking all day is “working hard”, but seriously, this is grueling), I went to my professors house to hang out with her nine year old son and play Pictionary gather important data and hone my language skills.  I planned to take the bus back, but just barely missed one, which left me waiting in the semi-open-air station for twenty minutes in the dead of night.

Quito’s bus stations inevitably have an attendant whose job is to sit behind a counter all day and give people change so they can pay the twenty-five cent fare (click here for my thoughts on this kind of employment / the first of many Uganda flashbacks).  Sensing my inherently desperate-and-lonely gringo nature, the attendant left his stall and started asking me questions.  At first, I could barely understand, but to my surprise, I quickly picked up the accent.  Our conversation started with football—naturally—but, somewhat on a whim, I decided to steer it towards Yasuní, and see what Quito’s bus-station-attendant demographic thinks of post-petroleum development strategies.

His thoughts were profound, nuanced, and clearly well-informed.  We only had a few minutes conversation before the bus arrived, but it was enough to suggest that some of my preliminary hunches about what is happening in Yasuní are correct.  I complain about anthropology’s post-modern post-positivist ennui quite a bit, but it is nice to be doing the kind of study where anyone—really, anyone—can turn out to be an expert.

All in all, a smashing if unexpected official start to my “research.”  I have two several-hours-long interviews today, which might prove a bit more challenging.

Not (Quite) Buying It

At the start of June, the New York Times published a piece by Jake Halpern called “The Freegan Establishment” on a group of radicals near-and-dear to my heart.   While some might be less-than-enthusiastic about being the person that comes to mind when the issue of eating trash comes up, I was quite flatterd to have the article e-mailed to me all of a dozen times.  This, of course, presented a historically unprecedented opportunity: a chance to write on a topic about which I actually know something. Feeling the high expectations of putative expertise, though, I’ve been sitting on my thoughts on this article for two weeks now.  Distilling an 80,000-word thesis/personal obsession into a blog post is, I have discovered, impossible.  Excuses out of the way, here goes:

Actually, before I offer my thoughts on Halpern’s depiction of freeganism, I should—like any honest, but insufferable, social scientist—offer a few methodological caveats.  While I’d like to think that my training as a sociologist gives my evaluation some intellectual gravitas (hah!), I didn’t deliver a nationwide survey or run any fancy statistical tests.  My own study of freeganism was qualitative and took place exclusively in New York City. I hung out and asked questions: something anyone with the patience and lack of concern for hygiene could do.

If there was any fact that became clear from eighteen months of ethnographic observation and interviews, it was that freeganism is a contested and variable term and its practitioners are a highly diverse group.  Self-identified ‘freegans’ I’ve met include hardcore anti-capitalists, middle-class business people with anti-waste sensibilities, religious fundamentalists committed to a life of poverty, and cheapskates enthusiastic about anything that saves them money.  Halpern’s description of freeganism, then, could be very different from my own—and that wouldn’t make either of our accounts any more or less valid, just reflective of the fact that we are capturing two very facets of the same phenomena.

– – – – –

My first thought on this most recent New York Times piece is—I’m afraid to report, for anyone expecting controvery—that it is really quite good.  Compared to practically every other mass-media report on freeganism I’ve ever encountered, Halpern’s portrain is rich, nuanced, and balanced.  A few points, in particular, shone through quite well:

1.  Freeganism ≠ Dumpster Diving – The New York Times’ one previous piece on freeganism—2007’s “Not Buying It”—brought the ideas of freeganism to a wide audience for the first time, and, ultimately, led to my thesis.*  It also, however, did the freegan movement a great disservice, by convincing most people that “freeganism” is coterminous with “eating trash.”  It’s a popular association that the freegan group I worked with which has only reinforced, by leveraging the public’s fascination with white, non-poor dumpster divers to attract media attention and draw people into the movement.

In reality, though, freeganism is a much wider set of practices, unified by goals of reducing dependence on the mainstream economy and minimizing environmental degradation.  Halpern does a great job showing this diversity: the Buffalo freegans don’t just engage in dumpster diving, but also squatting, bicycling, voluntary unemployment, wild food foraging, and communal living.  Whille all of these activities have political significance, they are, for many freegans, quite simply fun.

2.  Freeganism starts early – The most attention-grabbing accounts of who freegans are focus on those who have undergone dramatic conversion experiences: a favourite narrative is that of one New York freegan who, after seeing a demonstration on a “Buy Nothing Day,” quit her six-figure corporate job, left her apartment, and became a full-time activist.  While slightly less sexy, sociological theory tends to portray recruitment in a similar way, by explaining involvement in social movements as based on an individual’s network connections to activist groups and individuals as they exist at a single moment in time.

In my own research, though, nearly everyone I spoke to emphasized that the roots of their radicalism ran deep.  The experiences varied from experiencing racism at school to noting the indifference of family members to the suffering of homeless people to early dissolusion with mainstream activism.  That corporate-executive-turned-radical, for example, had been arrested during anarchist-theatre performances in her twenties; in many ways, becoming freegan was an act of personal rediscovery—“like coming up for air after being underwater for twenty years”—rather than a complete volte-face.  Describing Tim—the leader of the Buffalo freegan house—as a kid who was always trying to “stick the fork in the electrical outlet”, the article at least hints at these sorts of complex life histories.

3. ‘Anarchist organization’ may not be an oxymoron, but it is hard to achieve – This final comment reflects as much my experience as a freegan activist as my research.  One morning, the freegans in Buffalo woke up to discover all their forks had been turned into a wind chime.  The example highlights a general point: the creativity, inspiration, and free-spiritedness of many freegans often come alongside—and are, perhaps, inseparable from—behaviour that most people might label ‘dysfunctional.’  The Buffalo house may be a space of phenomenal liberty, but this comes at a price: without leaders, written rules, or means of coercion, the experiment is perpetually on the verge of falling apart.  While most freegans portray themselves as opting into their lifestyle by choice, clearly, some are pushed into it by their struggles to adapt to the expectations and norms of mainstream society.  These factors make creating movements and organizations that avoid hierarchy but are simultaneously able to get things done a frustrating and often unsuccessful process.

* The backstory here is pretty excellent.  Jackie forwarded me the article, stating, “Please don’t become one of these people.”  Naturally, I couldn’t resist, and the rest is history.

– – – – –

All this said, though, there were some contradictory points I wanted to make in response to the article:

1.  Not all of freeganism is self-defeating – One paragraph from the article sounds exactly like a comment I’ve heard more times than I can count: “[There is] a quandary inherent in the freegan movement. Freegans maintain that by salvaging waste, they diminish their need for money, which allows them to live a more thoughtful, responsible and deliberate existence. But if they succeed in their overriding goal, and society ends up becoming less wasteful, the freegan lifestyle will no longer be possible.”  This is, of course, the cynic’s inevitable trump card, the argument that allows anyone to dismiss freeganism and retreat back into complacency.  And, with some freegan practices, it is indeed a valid piece of criticism: most obvioualy, you can’t dumpster dive food if you don’t have wasteful supermarkets.  This contradiction is already in view in New York, where the naming-and-shaming of some particularly wasteful stores—like Trader Joe’s—have led them to better guard their dumpsters (if not actually reduce their output of garbage!).

Most freegans admit that if capitalism collapsed tomorrow, knowing how to live off of dumpstered-food would not be particularly helpful.  Skills like repairing a roof, fixing a flat tire on a bike, or finding edible snails in the forest, however, would.  I’m somewhat surprised, given the varied portrait of freeganism found in the article, that the author eventually decided to repeat this trope that all of freeganism is self-defeating parasitism.

2.  Freeganism as engagement – There is an implicit, tongue-and-cheek critique that runs through the article.  The oxymoronic title—the Freegan Establishment—captures it, suggesting a disconnection between freegan rhetoric and reality.  Quotes like “They worked their butts off and paid the back taxes and the utilities. They are more conformist than they want you to think they are” only further suggest that maybe these “freegans” aren’t quite as radical as they claim to be.

The gap between ideology and practice is one of the central themes of my research, so I will belabour the point a bit here.  As in any social movement, one doesn’t have to search very hard to find contradictions that smack of hypocrisy: I know freegans that own second homes, use cell phones, eat store-bought meat on special occasions and with family, and continue to work in for-profit companies.  Of course, nearly all of us could admit to some gap between our beliefs and our lifestyles.  The significance of these foibles, of course, depends on the standard we are using to judge.

The NYT journalist traces the roots of freeganism to pre-modern Digger colonies, which sought to create a world existing entirely shut off from the outside world.  Freegan rhetoric does often emphasize the group’s attempts to create a “world outside of capitalism.”  Judged as an urban analog to a rural commune which provides for all its members’ needs, though, freeganism is a total failure.  This is, at least in part, the point the article is making, by showing how the freegans inevitably had to rely on the system of private property to give their social experiment stability.

One of the points I argued in my work, though, is that freeganism is—in reality—less about ‘dropping out’ of society than it is engaging with and criticizing it.  ‘Dropping out’ of capitalism isn’t just impossible, it’s also an ineffective strategy for building a movement, since it means cutting oneself off from 99.99% of the population.  In reality, much of freeganism centers on taking things intrinsic to modern society—like the production of waste—and turning it into a tool for critique.

Consider, for example, how the article describes the squatters moving into the house in Buffalo: “Majewski’s strategy was to be as brazen as possible. ‘The facade of legitimacy was our main goal,’ he told me. ‘We pried the boards off and did it all in broad daylight. That’s what ownership comes down to — everyone believing that you actually own it.’ When he introduced himself to the neighbors, Majewski told them that he had the heir’s permission to move in. This wasn’t true, but the neighbors took Majewski at his word.”  From the start, the freegans were intent on projecting themselves as engaged in a worthwhile social project.  Similarly, the group dumpster dives I intended in New York were less an attempt to achieve individual moral purity as they were attempts to use waste to rope passerbyes into the movement.

– – – – –

Of course, a key question that the article doesn’t address, and with which I have been grappling for almost three years now, is whether any of this actually matters.  Global warming, peak oil, and the recent economic crisis notwithstanding, modern society is not, as far as I can tell, on the verge of collapse.  In fact, time and time again, liberal democracy and capitalism have proven themselves to be incredibly flexible and adaptable.  So why should we care what some apocalyptic “weirdos with garbage” (as one interviewee put it) think?  This is the point at which, I should warn, I will abandon all pretentions to speaking as an academic, and speak from the point of view of a higher calling: that of social justice activism.

I was, at least initially, surprised to read that, according to the New York Times, “freegans are not revolutionaries.”  After all, many freegans identify as anarchists, which—for most—is synonymous with nihilism and revolution.  On reflection, though, I realize where the author is coming from.  Freegans have no political party, no plan for seizing state power; no Marxist view of history that declares revolution inevitable.  In the 20th century, ‘revolutionary’ conjured up visions of Bolshevik comissars or Cuban guerillas; it’s a bit hard to see a group of people eating dandelions and learning to weave sandals out of yucca fiber as their 21st century progeny.

I’ll admit that arguing about who is and who isn’t ‘revolutionary’ is an exercise in mental masturbation.  But the question of from where radical ideas are going to come in the post-Soviet world—in which we have acknowledged that centralized government planning by ‘revolutionary’ governments simply doesn’t work—is an important one.  And I would argue that, in this sense, the freegans are fascinating.  As I see it, freeganism is a (highly flawed) experiment in alternative ways of providing for individual needs, organizing communities, and approaching activities like labour and consumption.  Freegans do not so much offer us concrete practices that we can all adopt (you can’t feed the whole world dumpster diving) as they offer ideas and possibilities.

After this rather philosophical turn, though, I’ll close this overly-long essay with a lighter observation.  Rather sagely, Halpern wrtes, “The freegans were making a statement and having a hell of a good time doing it.”  While we should take freeganism seriously, we shoudn’t take the freegans themselves too seriously—I don’t think they would much like it.

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Jukebox: Audioslave – Be Yourself

Broken Bones and Open Borders

Here’s an exciting life update: I broke my wrist.  I’m not going to go into how it happened, except to state that it did not involve alcohol and that my cover story is that it involved a fight with zombie ninja pirates.  Not a huge deal, but definitely a frustrating and unneeded at a stressful time of the year.  At least I could get a jet black cast that matched my wardrobe.

Immediately after the “incident,” I pushed myself through five hours of statistics in the library before heading off to a review session, at which point some of the more reasonable students in my program convinced me to go to the hospital to get my now comically swollen arm x-rayed.  They bid me adieu with the standard but ominous NHS send-off: “I hope you don’t have to wait too long.”

I’ve approached every experience I’ve had with the NHS so far as if it is the ultimate show-down between private and socialized medicine, with me as scorekeeper.  I’m ready to concede now, though, that – as enthusiastic as I am about participant-observation as a mode of research – the experiences of an accident-prone twenty-three-year-old are probably not sufficient for making a conclusive declaration about either system’s relative merits.  Sure, I didn’t have to wait more a few hours, and I definitely appreciate the $0 bill—but then again, I don’t have cancer and am not waiting for elective surgery.  Thus, I’m abandoning wholesale evaluation in favour of something a bit more obscure: metaphor and symbolism.

One thing that hit me during this most recent visit to an NHS “Accident and Emergency” Room was how little information they wanted about me.  Of course, they wanted to know my date of birth, medical history, and all about my injury.  But certain things we in the U.S. are accustomed to putting into endless forms – occupation, address, nationality, insurance – just don’t matter that much.  The NHS’s goal is to serve the person in front of them, not track them down with a bill or pick a fight with an insurance company.

The brilliance of it is that the NHS is, at least in some ways, impossible to exploit: I can lie or misrepresent myself to no end, and it doesn’t much matter, because the system doesn’t much care who I am so long as I need medical treatment.  We live in a world where government’s exist to categorize and classify and monitor—and yet the NHS is, in a weird way, surprisingly anonymous.  Somewhat counterintuitively, this makes me feel much more like a human being and less like a statistic.

– – – – –

This week in class, we’re discussing “statelessness.”  By “stateless,” we don’t mean refugees who have been ejected from their nations; instead, the term refers to people who literally have no nationality at all and thus—in a world where there is practically no designation more important than citizenship—do not really exist.  It’s a form of non-status that affects fifteen million people worldwide, non-persons ranging from Turkish Cypriots to the children of undocumented immigrants in countries that do not grant birthright citizenship.

All of the literature we’ve read on statelessness focuses on the stateless people as the problem: how, in the modern world, does anyone manage to have no birth certificate or passport?  And how do we fit these square pegs into the round holes of the nation-state system?  How do you legislate for people that are, just by merit of their persisting physical presence, lawless?  I think these are all stupid questions, to be honest.  For most stateless people, having no nationality is a horrible thing—but for some (I’m thinking, for example, of Roma, some indigenous groups, communards), perhaps it reflects their realization of how absurd our modern ideas of citizenship are.

The recent crackdown in Arizona has thrust immigration back into my brain in a big way again for the first time since I stopped taking classes with Professor Fernandez-Kelly at Princeton.  Freshman year, I spent dozens of hours collecting statistics and studies about undocumented immigration, in the hopes that the accumulation of piles of data would convince people that immigration is actually good for all concerned.  With the benefit of a few years of experience—and having watched comprehensive immigration fail over and over—I’m convinced that advocates for sane immigration policy need to go beyond reason.  We need to ask why it is that so much hinges on the lotteries of birth, and why categories and boundaries are so important.

When I think about problems like “statelessness”, I can’t help but think that the problem isn’t with the people, but with the states that throw up barriers between them.  My utopian imagination is once again drawn to a vision of a borderless world, in which we find a better way to sort ourselves than by pre-natal dice-rolls and invisible lines scrawled across the map.  I imagine states that exist to support whomever knocks on the door—acknowledging that we are, after all, in this together—rather than bringing one group in and leaving another outside.

It’s a weird time to live in Europe.  With politicians across the continent talking about gut-wrenching cuts to public services, I can’t help but think that I’m witness to the demise of one of the world’s great political experiments: social democracy.  Of course, I’m pretty sure the creators of the NHS didn’t have such lofty goals as universal citizenship in mind, but—metaphorically at least—I think they’ve created something that reaches towards them.  I’ll be sad if I have to see that go.

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Jukebox: Gaslight Anthem – The Boxer

A Brief Sociology of Social Lubrication

It seems almost ridiculous that I’ve lived in England for eight months now and haven’t yet blogged about the one thing more British than bangers and mash: alcohol.  Having just barely survived “my” birthday garden party and finally recovered from last week’s Boat Club Dinner, I suppose now is as good a time as any to share a few thoughts on the U.K.’s “drinking culture” (or, as I’m going to argue, lack thereof—in multiple senses).

It's cultural.

There is a certain mystique about European drinking among Americans (or, at least, among left-leaning Americans who think Europe is populated by more than just namby-pamby effeminate socialists and would like to be able to drink before twenty-one).  The logic goes something like this: in Europe, the drinking age is lower, and kids are introduced to alcohol at a young age.  As a consequence, they learn how to approach alcohol responsibly, under the watchful eyes of their parents.  Ergo, Europeans don’t have the same problems with binge drinking and alcoholism as Americans, who live in a sheltered state of denial until they arrive at college and go absolutely ape-shit.

The standard narrative about the U.K., though, is almost the exact opposite (which maybe proves England is its own continent, after all).  My first concrete sign of the different way the British approached alcohol came while I was still in the U.S., when I filled out a National Health Service medical form.  In addition to standard questions about height and weight, the form askedme how often I drank alcohol.  While a similar form in the U.S. might have categories like “Never” and “One per month,” the British equivalent offered “one to five per week” as its minimum category.  My first week here, a Scottish friend asked me how I was finding the national sport.  I wasn’t sure what he meant, until he explained, “You know, alcoholism.”

We convince our econ professors to have some champagne... at 11 a.m.

Without a doubt, the “lower drinking age = more responsibility” equation doesn’t seem to hold, at least in the academic bubble in which I live.  Particularly at this time of year—with exams finishing—Oxford is a pretty messy shit-show.  It’s not just students, though: running along the Thames today, I was amazed at the number of people knocking back beers before noon. The English really do manage to incorporate alcohol into everything: encounters with academic advisers, open seminars, and club meetings all somehow seem to involve drinking.  I went to church with my housemate Nicola today, and on the way out, the vicar was dispensing champagne.

The other kind of "boat race."

I think, though, that all these differences are of quantity, not type.  While the statistics suggest that the English are, as a nation, a bit drunker than most (barring Australia and Eastern Europe), I’m not sure how much this can really be declared adistinctive drinking “culture.”  As far as I can tell (and my perception is definitely skewed by being in a university environment) the basic rules and functions of drinking here are pretty familiar.  People drink to celebrate holidays and to mark achievements; the one’s who are getting really drunk are the late teens and twenty-somethings; older people drinking heavily is frowned upon.  Sometimes, in fact, the parallels between drinking at Oxford and at Princeton become almost too weird: at Boat Club Dinner last week, it hit me that “fines” (“I’ll fine anyone who fell into the river this term”) was pretty much the exact same as the “chugs” we do at Band Bandquet (“Everyone from the West Coast: drink!”).

Many of my American friends here seem constantly aghast at how English students drink—blind to how similar their behavior was to our own when we were undergraduates.  Perhaps the differences are more generational than cultural: when I really reflect on it, in my travels, drinking has often been more a universal than a source of difference.*  Amidst the non-stop culture shock that was my trip to Uganda, drinking a beer at the end of the day with my research team members felt natural and familiar.  As for mainland Europe, I can say with quite a bit of confidence that our assumptions about their generally responsible attitude to alcohol is bunk.  After all, at my party, it was a bunch of Eastern Europeans who raged until the porters shut us down, and last month, it was Christoph’s German friends who managed to break our dining room table—while playing a game taught to them by an American.

Just a few Europeans behaving responsibly.

I suppose this is all an instance of how, if we look for difference, we can find it—to the extent that we might even miss some blatant similarities.  While my time here has made me a bit more skeptical about a lower drinking age as a panacea for America’s frat-party woes, I do like the idea that alcohol can bring the world together, bound by our shared irresponsibility and immaturity.

* Of course, I’ve never been to a Muslim country.

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Jukebox: Dropkick Murphys – Kiss Me I’m Shitfaced