Last Friday was a great day in the already magnificent history of UW student activism. You might believe the “Boycott the Nitty” campaign was the result of visionary student leadership or you might dismiss it as a rash reaction to a mundane story by an attention-starved student press. Either way, you have to admit — especially since you’re reading this article — it got your attention.
To get your attention, both campus newspapers sensationalized a somewhat important story about alcohol policy by warping it into a crusade against oppression in the name of democracy and justice.
Don’t get me wrong. The testosterone-infused radicalism the Herald advocated last week was a refreshing change from the wimpy and dithering musings that generally define its editorial page.
Nevertheless, the absence of a student voting member on the Alcohol License Review Committee is not unfair — it’s equal treatment. Students are no more entitled to a vote than the “young professionals” who flood the Capitol-area bars are.
If you want to boycott the Nitty, there are two real reasons to do it. One, the Nitty Gritty is not a good bar. Two, the addition of a student voting member to the ALRC would put students in a privileged position to advance good alcohol policy.
The person who seems to best understand the issue is Ald. Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, District 5. Perhaps because she grew up in Europe, Bidar-Sielaff doesn’t think it makes sense for so many late-night entertainment establishments to be off-limits to so many adults. Yes, adults — the thing we become when we turn 18. Not when we turn 21.
Back in the ’80s, this wasn’t a problem. The state had a reasonable and somewhat realistic drinking age. All Madison nightlife venues were open to virtually all students. However, the federal government has since presented us with a dilemma. To drink legally, you have to be 21. Yet, to make money in Wisconsin, you still have to have a liquor license. Hence, young people don’t drink less, they just go out less.
This is not a situation a college town should seek to preserve. Non-Evangelical Christian underage students who want to have a good time at night should be able to find entertainment outlets. At the first committee discussion on putting a student voting member on the ALRC, Bidar-Sielaff emphasized the importance of adding the underage perspective to the alcohol licensing dialogue. It makes cultural and economic sense. Give underage students the opportunity to branch out of the grimy house parties where so many of them spend their weekends and bring them and their pocket money into the city nightlife.
A student voting member is not the only essential part of a policy that would encourage bars to include underage patrons. The police department should de-emphasize enforcement of the drinking age and instead concentrate on bars that are chronically over-serving patrons or are overcrowded. In addition, members of the council need to stop kowtowing to the Tavern League, which is nothing more than a stubborn group of bar owners who want to protect their businesses from competition. Since many of them — most notably the Nitty Gritty — fill their bars to capacity simply by serving rails and blasting Akon, they have little incentive to encourage entertainment diversity in the city.
So putting a student vote on the ALRC won’t be everything, but it could be a crucial part of a long-term strategy to provide more nighttime opportunities to underage students. It would amplify the voice in favor of expanding mixed-age bars and it would put students in a privileged position to deliver a vote in support of their interests.
So heed the Herald and Cardinal’s advice. Go to the council meeting. Make the alders shake in their boots and rail against the Tavern League. Make them realize the benefits of having a student — especially an underage one — serve on the ALRC.
But don’t pay attention to the talk of oppression. That was just the part that was supposed to get your attention. We’ve already got it pretty good. After all, the Nitty will accept your fake.
Jack Craver ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in history and the editor of The Sconz (thesconz.com), a local politics and culture blog.