|This is what law enforcement was up to in 1922. Courtesy New York Daily News.|
It's also more political than his previous work, which is unavoidable because prohibition was all about politics. But Burns is cautious in his conclusion, harping on the idea that government can't legislate morality.
This just isn't true. The age of sexual consent was 10 in much of America in the 1800s; in Delaware, it was 7 as late as 1895. We've come a long way in deciding that it's both illegal and immoral to have sex with 10 year olds, and for all the talk of sexualized teenagers today, there doesn't seem to be a great backlash to revert to prior standards.
I could give other examples -- polygamy, gay marriage, drunk driving, even progressive income tax -- but the point is, governments can and do legislate morality all the time.
So at the end of the day, though Burns teaches us some interesting history, "Prohibition" is disappointing for failing to draw some more obvious parallels to today's society.
Example: How can we not look at revenuers busting up stills in the 1920s and not think of the war on drugs today? I see mobsters killing each other in Chicago and think of the current frightening state of affairs just south of our border (not to mention "Breaking Bad.") We could totally legislate morality by legalizing marijuana, which would remove the attraction of harder, still-illegal drugs.
Another example: Suppose there is a national political organization driven by people who care only about one issue. They gather enough influence to decide elections, and are able to defeat any politician in either party who opposes them. Soon they control the political agenda.
|Courtesy of John Binder Collection|
Burns does point out the irony that women started the prohibition movement and stoked it by attacking saloons with hatchets or blocking the doors by praying outside, but until men got involved, not much was accomplished. There was one bit of good from prohibition: dreaming about it got women politically organized enough to eventually get the right to vote, though the first thing they did with it turned out to be this nation's greatest political mistake.
"Prohibition" does make that case convincingly. Even if you don't drink, even if you like the idea of ice cream socials, prohibition ruined the United States by making almost everyone dishonest. Government officials, police, and ordinary citizens chose to openly flout the law (it's where the word "scofflaw" comes from). "Dry" politicians drank as much as the "wets." It was as if the country was run by closeted gay Republicans who preach homophobia to their flocks. (Not that that would ever happen ...)
The prohibition era taught criminals to organize. It made minor crooks rich, and major crooks like Al Capone into celebrities.
Burns doesn't explore how Europe must have laughed at us, but he does nicely cover the racism aspects of prohibition, namely that beer and wine were seen as the beverages of lowly immigrants.
For wine geeks, the series is a mild disappointment because it says so little about wine. That's accurate enough, as prohibition started because we drank too much whiskey -- three times today's per capita consumption. And it ended even before the 18th amendment was repealed because everybody wanted to have a beer.
American wine in the pre-prohibition era was mostly by and for Italian-Americans, who were considered low-class; the idea of "white people" as a race hadn't even been developed yet.
And beer was controlled by German immigrants who built huge companies like Anheuser-Busch that WASPs looked askance at because they were foreigners. In fact, there's a missing link in Burns' work because we get the sense that pre-Prohibition, many Americans looked down on beer as an ethnic, low-class drink, but when President Franklin Roosevelt passed a bill legalizing it prior to full repeal, the whole country seemed to be behind him.
If you do start to watch "Prohibition," watch it all the way through. As with his epic "Baseball," it's fun to watch the advance of technology, from still photos to primitive films to features and finally to talkies. FDR cracking open one of the first legal beers for a delighted crowd is a highlight of the show.
But please, don't be mollified by what sounds like a serious-sounding conclusion. Legislating morality isn't the problem. Powerful minorities overcoming the wishes of the majority: that's the problem.
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