Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All Or Nothing: A Short History Of Abstinence In America

By Jessica Warner
McClelland & Stewart, 2008

Abstinence has been a mainstay of public debates and private discourse for two hundred years now, and in All Or Nothing: A Short History Of Abstinence In America Jessica Warner gives us a brief overview of its origins and the first century of its development.

Beginning with early attempts to curb the use of hard liquors at a time when their consumption was much higher than today, it quickly came to call for the abstention from all stimulants, including caffeine, drugs, and even spicy food. Armed with an optimistic outlook towards individual achievement and Jacksonian anti-intellectualism, the movement “had an almost morbid fear of leisure” (p. 27). It appealed to middle class Northerners, particularly those who had few vices to give up in the first place, but it made few inroads towards curbing the vices of those who did. Soon it moved from advocating moral suasion to calling on legislative solutions. It’s a pattern that continues today.

If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that its too short. Yes, it is call a short history, I know, but too much is left out or left unaddressed. Warner links the movement to Wesleyan perfectionism and the later Holiness movement, but doesn’t really explain what they were, or how their intellectual underpinnings could lead to an abstinence movement. She correctly notes that “moderation went from being a virtue to a vice” (p.37), but gives scant attention to why this shift should be so consistent and so powerful. Her discussion of the past century, the activism that effects us most today, is restricted to an eight page epilogue. Again, I know it’s a self-described short history, but as far as I know she wasn’t working under any page restrictions.

Also, she seems to be taking backhanded shots at Catholics. For example, the YMCA’s rationalization for distributing cigarettes, but not alcohol, is described as “Jesuitical.” She does this several times. Is she trying to be ironic, given views on Catholics at the time? Could it reflect views of the author? I don’t know. Its strange.

The abstinence movement is an important one and impacts us, both from the left and the right, every day. It deserves a serious, popular history. Maybe someday Warner will finish writing it.

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