Hard News by Russell Brown


The lessons of Prohibition

If Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's rich, nuanced 2011 documentary Prohibition does anything, it is to show how complex both the causes and effects of America's "Great Experiment" really were.

The coalition that achieved the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, banning the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages, embodied many different agendas.

The Women's Christian Temperance Union correctly perceived that alcohol abuse by men had devastating social consequences, particularly for women and children – but campaigned over decades for abstinence and eventual prohibition of alcohol as part of a platform of broader social reform. The Anti-Saloon Alliance, by contrast, was a brutally effective political pressure group that cared little about broader social issues and was absolutist in its stance.

In the South, Prohibition was a Jim Crow cause; in the North, it was often blatantly anti-immigrant (German and Italian immigrants arrived with cultures in which alcohol played a strong traditional role and always resisted Prohibition). Although Prohibition was enacted under a Republican presidency, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and reformers all fell either side of the line in the years before and during Prohibition.

And although we're used to thinking of the Experiment as a monstrous failure, its effects weren't all bad. Many Americans did in fact stop drinking and the overall death rate from alcoholism dropped nearly 80% (it subsequently rose again during Prohibition, but never quite to pre-1920 levels). It immediately got rid of the saloons, men-only boozing spaces that had become a destructive social anchronism by the 20th century. And with that order broken down, the speakeasies became places where women could participate. The New Yorker launched in 1925, in the midst of Prohibition, and in that year began running the columns of Lois Long, who chronicled the city's illicit nightlife (under the pseudonym "Lipstick") with a boldness and sexual openness that was revoutionary.

Long's prose, as quoted in the third and final episode of the five-hour documentary, is delicious and the joy of Prohibition is really its writing: both in the epigrammatic quotes from Long, HL Mencken and their contemparies and in the elegant, perfectly balanced scripts of long-time Burns collaborator Geoffrey Ward. The words, married with a trove of period photography and film, are more vivid than any full-colour reconstructed whizz-bang.

But, of course, Prohibition was a failure. It created almost instantly a network of organised, violent crime that never went away. Whole police forces and legislatures were paid off. Hard liquor supplanted beer again. Child drinking rose. Many thousands died from booze bulked out with wood alcohol. Loopholes abounded. And a generation of Americans learned to hold the law in contempt and become "a nation of hypocrites".

There are obvious parallels with modern drug prohibition – too many to mention – but they are never explicitly drawn. The documentary leaves them for viewers to draw.

Yet there is a modern resonance that the film-makers could not have anticipated in 2011. It's the part of the Prohibition struggle that pitted the rural America against the thriving cities, conservatism against liberalism and modernity. Then, as now, immigrants and people of colour were cast as the enemies of order and safety.

That's the dynamic that got us Donald Trump – and, in Prohibition's case, it did pass.  But it took nearly 14 years and a great deal of suffering to correct. Urban America will be hoping it doesn't have to wait so long this time.

In a way, the worst news is implied by the closing credits. Three of the funders – the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS itself – would be eradicated by the budget proferred by the Trump White House. The many archives and museums which provided material would very likely suffer too.

A danger of the present political barbarism may yet be that it prevents Americans from learning from their own history.

Prohibition is currently available for viewing on Netflix NZ.

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