License to Buzzkill

By Colin Kingsbury | Boston Magazine |


LIBERALS ARE FOND of all their slogans, of course — Arms are for hugging, If you can read this, thank a teacher, and so on. But there are few they like better than Keep your laws off my body, because it appeals to that innately American sentiment that individuals enjoy the inalienable right to do whatever — or whomever — they damn well please.

And there may be nowhere in this great country where that sentiment is more widespread than right here in Massachusetts. In 2004, we famously became the first state in the country to legalize gay marriage, just the latest example of us living up to our national reputation as a progressive Disneyland. Elections here are routinely decided by the outcome of the Democratic primaries, and the few Republican lawmakers who do manage to get elected wind up with roughly the same power and influence as the Congressional representatives of Puerto Rico and Guam.

Of course, we’re also fairly well off in this state, so you might expect there to be more Republicans running around. Unfortunately for the GOP, however, their party’s “brand” has suffered lasting damage from the notion that conservatives are basically the Fun Police, opposed to pre-marital sex, gay people, staying out late, not going to church on Sunday, loud music, and generally anything else that Lady Gaga approves of. And the Democrats have used this perception to their great political advantage, casting themselves in their fundraising campaigns as the only thing standing between this state and Republican attempts to create a homegrown, Christian version of Saudi Arabia’s Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

But the truth is that when it comes to how Massachusetts laws interfere with consensual adult recreation, we’re getting groped by more hands than a Pan Am stewardess — and it’s not by Republicans. Far from being a playground for consenting adults, Massachusetts often feels like one vast Brookline PTA meeting, where offenses are cultivated like topiary and the cupcakes better be gluten-free. It took a Republican state senator to propose bringing back happy hour last year, and he was run out of the State House on a rail by a howling mob of liberals, including Michael Dukakis, who guaranteed that “dozens of people would be killed or maimed” if the amendment passed. No one would be shocked to find this sort of moralistic nannying in a state like Utah, where nearly two-thirds of the population adheres to a religion that discourages coffee and tea — not to mention anal sex. But aren’t we supposed to be the opposite of Utah?

approach to grownup merry-making — promoting it on one hand and restricting it on the other — there’s no better subject than alcohol. We like to drink: Our alcohol consumption is second pretty much only to the upper Midwest, where there’s nothing else to do. In the 2006 to 2007 ­National Survey on Drug Use and Health, we were in the top fifth of states nationwide for the percentage of adults who reported consuming alcohol in the prior 30 days, and we’re hardly noted for moderation — more than 60 percent of us don’t see much risk in binge drinking (five or more pops in a single sitting) once or twice a week.

And yet, our laws treat booze like a cross of raw sewage and nuclear waste. While you no longer need to journey to the interstate to pick up a six-pack on Sunday, state law still prevents most supermarkets from selling anything stronger than Welch’s. A 2006 ballot question that would have allowed grocery stores to sell wine was soundly defeated 56 to 44 percent. In Boston, meanwhile, liquor licenses for restaurants are in such short supply (thanks to a state-imposed cap) that an unused permit can sell for up to half a million dollars. And small startup eateries can’t get around the restriction by allowing customers to serve themselves: While state law permits BYOB consumption, Boston, along with the progressive idylls of Cambridge and Somerville, bans it. Precisely which social ill this prevents is unclear, since any dissolute youths would still need to buy their Boone’s Farm from a licensed package store, but that’s just us at our stiff-collared best.

Illustration by Shout 

  • Frederick

    The tendency to pass extreme and outrageously restrictive laws on personal behavior is not limited to any political party. With one magic phrase: “Think of the children!”, plaintively mewled to the television cameras, you can force the cash-strapped MBTA to pull alcohol ads (despite ZERO evidence this will have any effect on supposed child alcoholism rates), you can ban happy hours, late night hours for taco stands in Downtown Crossing, or just about anything else you want to ban, forbid, or restrict. Consequences to personal liberty, to the economy, or to rational thought be damned. The complete and total safety, real or imagined, of these precious, helpless, eternally vulnerable and infernally indulged little bundles must take precedence.