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Dumb, dumber–and then there’s Oklahoma

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I am half Oklahoman, if you can believe it. My mother, Gertrude’s, parents were settlers there, before it was a State; her father founded Oklahoma’s first synagogue; Gertrude herself was born in Oklahoma City, grew up there, and moved, after graduating from college (in an era when few women went to college), with a couple of her girlfriends, to the bright lights of the big city, New York, where she met my father and produced me, in the great borough of The Bronx. (Yes, we were taught in grade school  that it’s The Bronx, with the “T” capitalized.)

I used to visit my uncle, aunt and cousins in Oklahoma City during the summers, when I was a kid. (I remember spending an entire month digging a hole in their backyard, looking for oil, which I never found.) My mother, although she lived in New York for more than 50 years, never quite shed her Oklahoman ways. She was a southern girl for whom good manners were important–so unlike New Yorkers! She drank a little alcohol, on occasion, when I was growing up, but only for holidays, or on a rare night out for cocktails. As she aged, and after she moved to California (now as a widow) to be closer to me, her drinking picked up, stimulated, no doubt, by my own and by my cousins’. We got together frequently in mom’s last years, for dinners at home or at restaurants, and whenever my cousins and I are together at night, you can be assured many bottles of wine will be opened. Mom got into Chardonnay. She also liked her Bloody Marys. She was too consciously polite ever to admit that booze made her pleasantly high; that wouldn’t have been proper, in a southern girl raised demurely. But booze did make her pleasantly high, and I’m glad she got the chance to experience the pleasures of alcoholic beverages before she died, quickly, at the age of 90.

This is a prelude to my commentary about Oklahoma‘s attitude toward alcohol. When I was a kid, Oklahoma was still a dry state. My ancestors were liberal Jews, FDR supporters, and they liked their bourbon and branch water (as they called it), but they were like tiny little islets of reason among a huge surrounding sea of religious fundamentalism and Bible Belt prohibitionism. Still, Oklahoma, for many years in the middle part of the 20th century, had a sort of Prairie Populism that elected Democrats as easily as Republicans. The most famous was Sen. Fred Harris, whom my uncle was friends with; Harris was almost selected as Hubert Humphrey’s running mate, in the 1968 election that Nixon won.

But by the 1980s, Oklahoma, like most of the south and Bible Belt, had gone solidly Republican, and conservative at that, so that today, the lone Democrats in the state may be my cousins (and I’m not even sure where their children are, politically!). This is by way of explanation concerning the chaos and stupidity that now surround the sale of alcoholic beverages in the Sooner State. Oklahoma is radically fearful of free adults being able to drink freely. The About.com website declares that “The Oklahoma state liquor laws are very specific and limit a number of things that are legal in other states. They are some of the strictest in the nation.”

For example, “…any alcoholic beverage containing more than 3.2% alcohol by weight or 4% alcohol by volume can only be sold at room temperature in state-licensed liquor stores. This includes wine, high-point beers and other liquor…Grocery stores and convenience stores can only sell low-point beer (between 0.5% and 3.2% alcohol by weight).” This mostly denies consumers the right to purchase anything other than crappy beer (and sales are entirely restricted on Sundays and holidays). Saner voices than those who rule with totalitarian rigidity have lately arisen, calling for more freedom, especially the right to buy wine in grocery stores. Oklahomans for Modern Laws (OML) is leading this fight. They currently are passing around a petition to permit the sale of wine in stores. But such is the nature of the political and religious opposition that OML has been forced to limit their call for open sales only to the largest stores (25,000 square feet or more), and then only in the state’s biggest counties. If the petition gets 155,000 signers, the issue goes on the November ballot.

Predictably, things have gotten heated and confused, even by Oklahoma standards, with some people protesting that OML is just a front for Big Box retailers. Given the flack, which has pitted even those in favor of expanded sales against each other, it doesn’t seem likely to me the petition drive will succeed and, even if it does, that the voters will pass the measure in November or, even if they do, that the ultra-conservative State legislature will allow it to stand.

Small-government conservatives are always decrying intrusive government that (they claim) won’t allow people to live their lives freely, as they see fit–including engaging in free commerce among themselves. That small-government political philosophy sounds great, until you look at states like Oklahoma, where these same “free market” politicians impose themselves on the people whenever it suits their fancy, such as limiting the people’s right to buy wine or beer whenever they want, wherever they want, at whatever temperature they want. I don’t know how these politicians can have it both ways. I do know that voters who consistently elect them shoot themselves in the foot. In putting neo-prohibitionists into office, Oklahomans–my cousins excepted–deny themselves, their friends and their families the rights and freedoms we here in California enjoy, and that all Americans should.

By the way, why are Oklahoma legislators so afraid of wine? Because in vino veritas. If Oklahomans were allowed to think clearly, they’d make radical changes to the zealots who currently represent them.

  1. James McCann says:

    Interesting that you chose Oklahoma as your political example. If you had chosen Pennsylvania, where we have the same struggles, it’s the Democratic Party and the unions that continually prevent us from having private wine and spirits stores, while Republicans repeatedly try to privatize the antiquated and restrictive state system.

    In Oklahoma, Democrats held the power in the state as late as 2006. Why didn’t they change the system then?? Why blame Republicans for not changing a system that Democrats failed to change for decades? And why is everyone who holds a different view than you “DUMB”?

    In PA, where voters overwhelmingly favor privatization, Democrats and their union paymasters continue to block the will of the people. But that didn’t fit your narrative.

    In the end, having 50 states and 50 sets of laws is a strength, not a weakness, of our country. Oklahomans are free to go somewhere else.

  2. James,

    I understand many of your points, until the very end. In reading everything that both you and Steve wrote, I don’t see how you reach the conclusion that “having 50 states and 50 sets of laws is a strength, not a weakness…”– At least not in this situation. Can you explain how what you both wrote leads to things being better with regard to alcohol? Thanks.

    BTW, there are a lot more than 50 as in many states alcohol is controlled on the county level (wine is a lot more expensive in Montgomery County, MD because of a different set of taxes. In Texas, there are wet, damp, and dry counties, etc).

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines
    Siduri Wines

  3. James McCann says:

    Adam,

    Steve lives in CA. He’s complaining about laws in OK. If the people of Oklahoma feel strongly about it, they can speak with their votes. He doesn’t leave open the possibility that those who wish to limit alcohol sales are in the majority in Oklahoma. And that’s the beauty of our system as conceived… while those of us who make our living selling intoxicating products might like it otherwise, the 37% of Americans who totally abstain have the right, especially if they live in clusters, to determine how alcohol is handled in their communities.

    Of course you are right about the many subdivisions of liquor laws within states. My retired parents live in a dry resort town. While neighboring communities deal with problems as people pour out of bars late at night during the summer, their community remains a peaceful enclave. (and a short walk or drive from those same bars and restaurants) To each their own.

  4. James,

    Got it. But it seemed like, from what you mentioned about the majority of PA favoring privatization, that the system isn’t allowing for that to be implemented. I guess I would argue that you aren’t allowing for the effect that large amounts of money has on lawmakers and how that can be much more influential than the will of the people.

    As far as where your parents live, odd to hear that it is better to have a peaceful enclave with people having to drive back home from the bars and restaurants after drinking is preferable. I lived in Carrollton, Texas for a few years, which was dry at the time. Addison, a neighboring town, was wet…and bars/restaurants/wine and liquour stores were lined up along the border…bringing much needed revenue into Addison…but sadly, leading to way too many people having to drive home to Carrollton after drinking.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  5. It’s probably a mistake to look at this as a red state/blue state or conservative/liberal issue. Both are ready to write new regulations and control how we live. If we want to change a law what do we do? Do we just argue on the merits of the change? We all know how it is done and we have to be willing to open our wallets.

    In a senior moment the other day I made the mistake of sending a check to Obama. Now my home phone, email, and postal mailbox are akin to walking out of a train station in Asia and making your way through a maze of street hawkers and beggers.

    These restrictive laws are mostly relics of a different time and are held in place by special interest/campaign finance realities. They are sometimes slightly influenced by differing circumstances in the many states. Surely Oklahoma law is influenced by its large Native American population and specific problems it has experienced relating alcohol consumption.

    Based on the Oklahomans I know, it certainly has nothing to do with intelligence. These laws stay in place because in reality people just adapt to circumstances and are prepared to deal small inconveniences like room temperature beer.

  6. I’m generally in agreement with James, certainly with the fact that he illustrates, once again, that Steve, while an astute wine critic, is not much of a political pundit.

    As Steve points out, Oklahoma (I live in Texas and my mom’s family is from Oklahoma originally) is extremely conservative but with a pronounced populist streak. A “conservative populist” is not an oxymoron, it’s pretty common in parts of the Southwest. Populism certainly is not a political philosophy that rejects government restrictions on private behavior. The more libertarian brand of conservatism does not predominate in Oklahoma. The fact is, our country’s politics are too complex to be boxed as Steve would like to do, by suggesting that “conservatives” purport to believe this or that, for the purpose of lobbing an accusation of hypocricy against a group as a whole.

    In any event, “small government” conservatism, is commonly a political philosophy directed at the Federal government and the belief that the Federal government is and should be a government of limited powers, leaving most matters that impact peoples’ daily lives to state and local governments — i.e., preserving the concept of federalism. Therefore, being a “small government conservative” and supporting certain local government restrictions on certain types of economic or other activity is also not necessarily inconsistent. The post inaccurately conflates small government conservatism with free market conservatism. The two are not the same.

  7. James McCann says:

    Adam,

    This is getting a little off topic, but surely you can see the difference between a 25 year old leaving a bar after 8 Jaeger bombs and my 72 year old father after one drink with his dinner.

    “Having to drive home after drinking”… Having to?? Are you kidding? Those that choose to drive into the “wet” town, get drunk, then drive back are criminals, both legally and morally.

  8. James McCann says:

    Mike,

    Very well put.

  9. James,

    Of course you are right about the “having to” part….I should have been more careful. My point was that I have yet to see a study that shows having wet areas and dry areas in close proximity does anything to change behavior, except increase the cases of drinking and driving.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  10. James McCann says:

    Adam,

    It’s not about changing behavior. It’s about not having someone open a bar near your home, with intoxicated people piling out from 12 – 2 AM every night, all summer long. (Full disclosure, I certainly did and still do engage in this behavior)

  11. James,

    Understand that point. And certainly feel that such things can easily be regulated thru local zoning laws regulating operating hours, types of establishments (food served vs. only alcohol, etc) without the negative aspects of increased drinking and driving.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  12. Mike, I don’t think my post “inaccurately conflates” the federal vs. state issue, as you say. Time after time, conservatives are in favor of big, intrusive govt. when it suits their ends, whether it’s Gov. McDonnell’s vaginal probes, revising the U.S. Constitution to prohibit gay marriage, restoring Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, undoing environmental legislation in the Congress after it was already passed by the states, instructing local schools how to teach via No Child Left Behind, prohibiting abortion even thought it’s legal, I could go on and on. The “small govt.” argument is a complete lie and Republicans, particularly teabaggers, should blush in shame every time they use it — except that there’s nothing that can make a teabagger feel shame, because they’re so driven by ideology that they no longer have the capacity to be in touch with anything resembling a conscience.

  13. James McCann says:

    Which one of these items expanded the size of government, save for “No Child Left Behind”, which more Democrats voted for than Republicans? (Probably should have looked that up before you wrote that, although being so political, I would have thought you would remember Edward Kennedy’s enthusiastic support.)

    It’s also clear that you’re not very well versed on abortion law, or the court’s rulings on the topic, but that’s not the point, is it? It saves you a lot of time if you don’t look into the actual issues, and instead call us dumb, lacking conscience, etc…

  14. “Small Government Republican” is a laughable oxymoron in 2012. At one point there was a GOP that looked something like that, just as there were once conservative intellectuals. That sort of conservative is either dead, hibernating or being silenced by the erratic theocrats that currently run the party.
    The GOP, the party of forced ultrasounds (trans-vaginal or not); taking away democratically elected representatives in Michigan (not to mention illegally using the emergency legislative provision, to put laws into effect immediately); the party of Rick Santorum’s – the law of the land must comport with god’s law- sentiment. The party that wants to control what goes on in the bedroom between two consenting adults
    The party that would undo the enlightenment if they had their way. The party of the TeaBrains.
    An intelligent and engaged opposition if vital to a democracy, however we do not currently have one. We have an opposition who would drive us to Idiocracy
    Derision is how we should approach this party.

  15. Well, I’m sorry I started all of this. What Steve and DR’s last posts illustrate is how much we need dialogue between people with different political points of view. The portraits the two of you paint of conservatives are complete caricatures and don’t match up with me (in my opinion) nor all the other conservatives I know and call close friends (I do live in Texas after all!). I will say that I’ve heard many outrageous caricatures of liberals by conservatives that are the virtual mirror image of those above. None of this serves any useful purpose.

    Every once in a while I feel compelled to tell Steve how much more I like it when he sticks to wine without straying into partisan politics. I’ll try harder to avoid this urge. Steve, you of course can blog on any topic you darn well please. I come here regularly to read because you are such a good writer and have so many interesting things to say about wine and the wine world.

    Now, can this discussion steer back to wine?

  16. The Oklahomophobic State Motto: You can take away our cold beers; just don’t take away our semi-automatic weapons!

  17. This from the state that gave us the Octomom.

  18. [The real issues here, IMHO, are:] “How shall the dividing line between collective action and private action be drawn? How can it be claimed that democratic voting is coercive? The obvious answer is that the minority is compelled to accept the wishes of the majority”.
    [But have all participants in the democratic process agreed to be bound by its decision? Have individuals expressed their consent to be bonded to a “Hobbesian social contract”?]
    “Spooner (Lysander) is definitive in his claim that, as a matter of fact, the minority did not agree to be bound by majority decision making”.
    “Collective action, when accomplished through the intermediation of the state, is no longer merely collective. Due to the police power of the government, it becomes turned into coercive collective action”. (Walter Block; The Calculus of Consent Revisited)

  19. John Roberts says:

    Sounds like an impassioned argument, understandably so, but also one that has been framed in what I think is an incorrect way. It’s a cultural issue, not a political one. While the political tastes in Oklahoma may change over time, some things will not. Sure, the South saw a huge shift from Democratic to Republican over the century, but guess what, most of those souls really didn’t change their most ardent and passionate positions, the party’s did. A separatist from the 50s might be called something different today, but they’re still a separatist. Prohibition grew in part out of a temperance movement that had good things in it’s cross-hairs; drunken unproductive men that tend to abuse those around them. This doesn’t describe all drunks, but if the majority in some part of the country feels that most of the drunks there act this way, America is the country where they can change this. That, as much as I disagree with it, is a magical possibility. I think that in my county, we should be able to legalize prostitution and cocaine, and regulate it. A certain type of character often pervades a particular area, and the area’s laws, in reason, can reflect the potential in that area. Great discussion though, something worthy of deep discussion and good wine, well, depending on where you are!

  20. I’ve lived in Oklahoma for twenty years. My husband and his family were born and raised here. Oklahoma is very conservative. It’s more than the ideology, it’s the certainty that keeps it that way. If you ask a conservative to explain why they don’t support more moderate liquor laws, they’ll tell you they’re not stopping anyone from buying it, they can just go plan a trip to the liquor store when it’s open. They will not tell you, directly, that the reasons are religious. (Though it is.) They will simply imply that availability itself is their idea of compromise. Aren’t they nice?

    Meanwhile Oklahoma City itself has passed new laws, within the metro area, making discrimination based on sexual orientation illegal. Amazing, huh?

  21. Dear Liz, amazing, yes, but my mothers people are from Oklahoma and I find it sad that the state has veered so far right.

  22. I moved from Austin, TX to OKC about 18 months ago to work for Devon Energy. I was wined, and dined, and took the offer. 9 months later I was laid off. What I found stunning was the general lack of business acumen. While my co-workers had “advanced” degrees from the local schools, they didn’t have the typical Fortune 500 experience I expected. I found many/most people didn’t travel outside of OK, and were afraid to try anything they perceived as “new.” Like Thai, sushi, etc. I’m also shock by the number of people who quote bible verses at work! “Well you know from a scripture perspective…” Frankly I’m stunned. My family and I are simply marking time until we can move back to our home in Austin.

  23. Dear Pete, I am sorry to hear of your discomfort in OK. As a half-Oklahoman, I am not surprised, having heard from my cousins for many years how hard right the state has turned. Oklahoma used to be an intelligent state but for some reason this Biblical obsession has overtaken them.

  24. It’s one thing that Oklahomans like the bible so much but they hold greater value on the bible than they do a solid foundation of education. That has become a major issue in this state alone.

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