The current government restrictions in response to COVID19 reminds me of the prohibition era that I wrote my thoughts about previously. In that post, I described how the entire exercise terminated one normal and replaced it with a new normal. In particular, the old normal involved what a saloon culture where it was very common for every town or hamlet to have a local bar or tavern where people will congregate for long periods of time. Alcohol was served. Things happened. People frowned and alcohol was banned. For a while. That is the basic story for the prohibition, at least as it was taught to me when I was young.
Eventually, the restriction was lifted, and people were permitted to consume alcohol again. The lesson I was taught was that solved the problem. People could now purchase and consume alcohol without legal consequences, at least while they obey certain restrictions as to where they consume it, or where they carry it. The repeal of prohibition remediated a mistake.
As I described in the earlier post, something very fundamental changed.
I recall growing up with a sense of reverence of the the importance of alcohol itself to the human condition. It was something set as a standard for being grown up, something to look forward to when being recognized as grown up. Alcohol was consumed often in homes, sometimes accompanying dinners, sometimes in house parties (indoors or outdoors), and sometimes alone. These patterns may be a constant throughout history, but I suspect that prohibition era elevated the concept of alcohol consumption as a means to living an authentically human life.
Certainly before prohibition there were problems with certain people over-indulging in alcohol leading to many bad behaviors and life outcomes. Prohibition may in fact be praised as a possible solution addressing this problem. The solution involved shutting down the communal places for distributing the alcohol. The change the prohibition and repeal brought about was that it killed the industry of the communal gathering place where the primary attraction was the distribution of alcohol.
The justification of prohibition was the specific topic of alcohol, but there may have been an unspoken or even unconscious need that permitted the success of the implementing prohibition in the first place. I propose that that need is a need to shut down the communal gathering spot.
I imagine the bar scene prior to prohibition to be similar to what was depicted in earlier movies, especially in westerns. A bar was a place for locals regularly (often daily) spend time to be with their friends. It was simultaneously a place for strangers to come to, not knowing anyone, superficially to buy a drink but the intent was to be noticed. In many smaller locations with established regulars in the bar, the novelty of the strangers would invite interactions. The outcome may be a start of new friendships, or it may be just an exchange of stories or even introductions to different personalities that would enrich everyone involved.
We often use the term watering hole today to refer specifically to the place where alcohol is served. The fact that such a place is a social gathering space is secondary to there being a source of alcohol. Some people may go to the bar to drink alone, but many will go in small parties such as their family, an already established set of friends or coworkers. Usually a crowded bar will have clusters of people talking almost exclusively to people they already know with the added novelty of having to shout to each other in order to be heard. Certainly, the modern bar scene is also a place to meet new people, but even this is frequently an explicit goal for going out. If I want to meet someone, one option is to go to a bar and buy a drink.
The culture prior to prohibition had a different element I suspect is rare or still lost. Described in terms of modern sensibility, the saloon was an extension of one’s home. The saloon was the family room or living room, but instead of being exclusive to a family, it was inclusive of an entire community. More importantly, this communal family room had an open door for strangers to drop in, without invitation, and usually be quickly approached to join some gathering in part for the sake of relieving the strangers loneliness, but also for the sake of the novelty of someone new to include in the otherwise redundant conversations.
Prior to prohibition, at least among the less wealthy, the private homes did not have an area primarily set aside for entertaining guests. For larger homes with such areas, often the home operated similar to a tavern, the door was open for neighbors or even strangers to drop by unannounced and hang out for a while. The visitors would understand that there was a certain window of time when this would be acceptable, but this was a generous window of time. This was for more well-to-do poor with larger homes. Most would prefer to use the community’s establishment that is set up for that purpose. That establishment would specialize in hospitality and offer tables, chairs, and refreshments. People would go there if they wanted to get out of their house.
But more fundamentally, people would go there instead of being in their house, in a sense a place to go to wait for someone to drop by. This is the key thing I think we lost with the prohibition. A place for people to lounge around, waiting for someone to drop by.
Earlier in my life, I lived in apartments of the variety described as luxury. These apartments had amenities such as a club room, a lounge with comfortable chairs, as well as a pool, a game room, and an exercise room. People used these spaces for the purposes assigned to the rooms. People did not use these spaces if they didn’t need the room’s stated purpose. Specifically, people generally did not use these spaces to just wait for someone to drop by. Anyone who did would be viewed suspiciously.
Loneliness is a constant of the human experience for all time. But the manifestations of loneliness can change over time. There is a fundamental difference between being alone in the different eras. Today’s typical loneliness is spending time in one’s own private living room with own’s own hospitality services and electronic entertainment. The earlier loneliness was sitting in a tavern perhaps alone or with someone you already know, but where the hope is that eventually someone will drop by, and by doing so announcing his approachability to be drawn into conversation.
I think about a recent experience I had while looking out my window while I was teleworking. I marveled at seeing my yard full of birds hunting for things to eat under the leaves. The birds were packed sometimes wing-width apart and each one flipping leaves constantly and occasionally eating something. Given that they often were flipping leaves already flipped by others, anything they found must have been tiny, sometime comparable to a solitary peanut in a bowl at a bar.
I was convinced they were not eating because they were starving. If they were, they would have spread out over the entire neighborhood and not cluster so closely, and certainly not lingering around an already well-picked area for so long.
There were a wide variety of bird species next to each other. On the ground were doves, robins, starlings, and bluejays. Just above them in the trees there were multiple woodpeckers and other birds checking out the branches. Interspersed were yet other species fluttering around not appearing interested in looking for any food at all. I imagined something more was going on than just a feeding frenzy. There came a moment when suddenly they all flew off, everyone of them from all the species on the ground and in the trees. It appeared that they all went their separate ways.
This reminds me of the nature documentaries that typically follow a particular type of animal. No matter what animal is followed, there is inevitably a scene when the animal visits a place where there is water. Obviously, the animal needs to drink. However, if it is a matter of thirst, it shouldn’t take long to get in enough water and move on. In the way I was taught, a watering hole must be a terrifying place especially in generally arid areas because lots of different types of animals would be there. Even the documentaries will show prey species drinking within mutual sight of their predators. Typically nothing would happen and it seemed like they were confident nothing would happen. Occasionally there may be a confrontation but even if that ends up being fatal for one, the rest of the watering hole just resumes sticking around and only occasionally taking a sip of water.
The natural watering hole has its own business hours in a sense. There are times when lots of animals will be around, and other times when the body of water is nearly completely vacant. I suppose the terror explanation may work here in that the animals gather in large numbers across a multitude of species because there is safety in numbers. I imagine there is more going on though because when this happens, most of the animals are not spending most of their time drinking. They are just hanging around. They do this for a while and then they disperse.
There is something common in the animal experience about gathering around watering hole at certain times. The gatherings will include multiple varieties of animals, often antagonistic of each other in other times, but somehow peacefully coexisting for a certain period and for a certain place. Occasionally the peace would be interrupted with some aggression but when that is settled, the overall peace resumes until the metaphorical closing time when all depart.
In human nature, there is a repulsion to any comparison of human behavior to animal behavior. The primary example is our attitude about sexual activities, it embarrasses us so much that we want it kept private and out of sight of society. Even when we acknowledge its presence, we hope it is performed in an nonanimal like way.
A similar repulsion may be occurring when it comes to watering holes. Animals of large varieties will sometimes gather in the same spot and even if they are natural enemies they temporarily cooperate and even communicate nonviolently.
In the human analog, we make distinctions between gatherings with a hierarchy the prioritizes immediate family over extended family, and that over tribe, and that over commercial partners, etc. At the bottom of the hierarchy are strangers belonging to alien groups. Subconsciously in a societal sense, we seem to be repulsed by the intrusion of outsiders especially if the arrive uninvited and especially if they immediately make themselves comfortable in our spaces.
There seems to be a cycle where we relax and allow ourselves to revert to this natural order of making ourselves approachable to strangers (including people who may hate us) in certain spaces known to offer a common hospitality. This will grow gradually to the point where it is abundant everywhere. Then, suddenly, society shuts it down abruptly, demand a new normal amounting to stay in your home, associate only with people you already know.
This happened with the prohibition. In that case, the retreat to homes was explicitly for the consumption of alcohol out of sight of law enforcement, but social groups also moved underground in the form of speak-easies, and privately-defended venues. These areas managed to avoid some of the restrictions, but one thing that was eliminated was the welcoming of uninvited strangers.
It happened again with the current COVID19 situation. There is a need for an explanation for how quickly and easily the government was able to impose the concept of defining essential workers and essential businesses with the implication that everything else must be curtailed or outright halted. The government equated non-essential to anything involving the gathering of strangers, especially if they are uninvited. The following are non-essential: bars, entertainment centers, gyms, hair salons, and cruise ships. All of these involve gathering of unrelated peoples, often without screening for appropriateness for associating with each other. When non-essential businesses were allowed to operate, they had severely limited capacity or had to require reservation. The effect is to shut down the spontaneity of gathering and the the possibility of meeting strangers.
I found to be most comical is the government’s assumption that the only purpose a person may have to visit a place is for the business offered. The only reason to go to a restaurant is to satisfy one’s nutritional needs or possibly one’s need for culinary experience. The only reason to go to a bar is to get a dose of alcohol for self medication or something. The only reason to get a hair cut is to keep the hair from growing too long.
I am free to go to a restaurant as long as I eat by myself and leave promptly when the plate is empty. I can go on a cruise as long as I stay in my cabin unless I have specific permission to go elsewhere, and that must have an approved justification. I can have a drink in a bar if I socially distance and just consume my drink.
I am exaggerating to drive the point of how the non-essential business definition coincided with the spontaneous and uninvited gathering of strangers. In the prohibition era, this restriction was by implication of the association with serving alcohol. With COVID19, the restriction was more explicit with the explanation of the difficulty of constraining the contagion and especially the difficulty of the concept of contact tracing.
The point of this post is how immediately the population permitted this closure of all opportunities for spontaneous gatherings of strangers close enough for interpersonal interaction. We immediately accepted without complaint the mere concept of there being a non-essential element to the human experience. In particular, we accept that spontaneous gathering of strangers is not essential to being human.
The speed at which we as a society accepted this non-essential designation suggests to me that we have a subconscious repulsion to that concept. There is something telling us that we should not associate with strangers, reminiscent of a child’s instruction from their parents.
It is as if the natural human condition is to be tribe. There may be many ways to define a tribe. In any case, there is an in groups that is permitted free association and an outgroup that must be kept at a distance and viewed suspiciously.
Humans are not permitted to have watering hole experiences enjoyed freely by the rest of the animal kingdom and probably the plant kingdom as well. If left alone, we tend to restore the watering hole experience with a sense of relief of being open to strangers. Each time the collective society recognizes this happening, society finds an excuse to shut it down or to force some alternative.
The social structures and governments are meant to be a gathering of people and yet these governments inevitably strive to find ways limit the ability of people to gather and interact randomly.
I suspect this is coming from religion. Writing about this reminds me of the story of Jesus chasing out the money changes from the temple. I recall being taught about how noble this was for him to protect the sanctity of the temple grounds and also to fight against the corrupt practices. What does not make sense is how easily one man was able to do this against a large number of such merchants. In the story, the crowds supported him immediately although the act would set off a sequence of actions leading to his crucifixion.
I can’t explain the crowd being so eager to support him shutting down the businesses that drew those same crowds. Maybe immediately they saw the injustice of the perceived cheating in the bartering. The answer though was to declare the bartering itself to be non-essential and should be shut down entirely.
The people’s acceptance of that solution seems eerily similar to the people’s acceptance of prohibition and to the current acceptance of COVD19 restrictions. There is something very animal-like in the concept of public spaces where strangers are permitted to gather and interact among each other individually and with little constraint by their tribal designations.
Watering holes are for animals, not humans.