Thursday, September 29, 2011

Ken Burns' Prohibition: Good television, careful politics

This is what law enforcement was up to in 1922. Courtesy New York Daily News.
Ken Burns' "Prohibition," which starts next week on PBS, is a nice piece of filmmaking; well worth investing three nights for a view of American history.

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
The Tea Party, right? Well, maybe, but the original Tea Party was the Anti-Saloon League, which managed to make prohibition -- a concept that only a vocal minority ever wanted -- into the law of the land.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray


Kent Benson said...

I agree with you that government can and does legislate morality. I would go as far as to say that all law is a form of legislating morality. (However, I consider the progressive tax code as an instance of legislating immorality, but that’s another subject.)

I agree with you that we should have some form of drug legalization, but I’m unsure just how it might work. You say legalizing marijuana would remove the attraction of harder drugs. Are there really people doing crack because they couldn’t legally score a joint? You’ll have to explain that one to me.

One of the arguments for drug legalization (again, as a Libertarian, the concept holds appeal) parallels the prohibition experience. That is, illegal drugs lead to crime, so legalize the drugs and eliminate the market for the criminals. Sounds good, but will it really work that way?

It seems to me that most drug-related crime, centers around crack cocaine and meth. I’m admittedly far removed from the drug world, but I don’t picture drug pushers in the ghetto pushing reefers to little school kids. How will legalizing marijuana stop the illegal distribution of crack and meth? (I don’t buy the “remove the attraction of harder drugs” postulate.) Don’t we need some kind of legal substitute for crack and meth (like we had commercially made whiskey to replace moonshine) to really strike a blow against the criminal drug industry?

On an unrelated note: just what is the Tea Party’s single issue you are so worried about? If I were to single out one from among several, I would have to say the most important to the Tea Party types I know is smaller Federal government. Oooo…scary!

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: You answered your own Tea Party question, though I would probably use a different way of describing it: the Tea Party stands for lower taxes for fewer services. Fair?

I know we're going to disagree about whether that's as dangerous as Prohibition, but that's why the Tea Party has the sort of solid, fervent, minority support today that the Anti-Saloon League once enjoyed.

W. Blake Gray said...

Re crack and meth: They both arose in an era of harsh crackdowns on marijuana for fairly obvious reasons. Unlike a big shaggy weed, crack is compact and easy to smuggle. And meth can be manufactured locally, so it doesn't have to be smuggled.

Can we put those evil genies back in the bottle by legalizing marijuana? I don't know, neither do you, neither does anybody else. But that's no reason not to try.

Mexico's border violence alone is enough reason to legalize marijuana, let alone speculation on people transferring from coke and meth.

SUAMW said...

Blake, The USA is not a Domocracy or a "representative democracicy". It is a republic. And in the cynical view of those like me, while in a democracy (where everyone has a say) the majority rules - but in a Republic, the shrill voices of the hysterical few dictate the status quo for all.
I think that is another way of rephrasing your last point. American history illustrates how this is, in fact, the case.

SUAMW said...

Blake. As for Marijuana being a "gateway drug": that is an asinine and uninformed belief.
There is no choice in a "drug of choice".
While all addictions share a common neurochemical pathway, the reason some people get hooked on stimulants and others prowl the streets for Oxy is that each respective substance "treats" (or palliates) an underlying condition.
Yes, that is a complex view of addiction. But then, the fact that in the USA we like to parse things into easy quick tidbits and simple paradigms is emblematic of our cultures' thinking.
But consider this: in cancer, we look at 5-year survival rates. In addiction treatment programs they look at sobriety at 1 year post program. A 50% sobriety rate at one year is considered a good program. It's essentially a coin toss.
Perhaps it's time to look at addiction differently. First: stop calling any substance a "gateway drug". Secondly: quit calling it a disease. It's a symptom or a consequence of underlying neurodysfunction. Treat the underlying dysfunction and your sobriety rates will improve dramatically. Thirdly, replace D.A.R.E and other scare tactics-based programs with honest education. You tell all these kids how alcohol is oh-so bad for them, but never explain why there is beer at the baseball stadium or why there are several isles in each grocery store dedicated to beer, wine and liquor. (Hint: the stuff SELLS, because it makes people feel good. That is why people keep buying and using something that is said to have so many untoward health consequences - be it Jack Daniels, Marlboro or crack)

Kent Benson said...

Blake – I think most Tea Party members would be more than willing to forego tax cuts, if they could make some headway on reducing spending. I would be happy to keep tax rates exactly where they are. As the Tea Party mantra goes, we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem. So, I repeat, the Tea Party’s number one concern, as I see it, is Federal government spending (or if you prefer, the scope and size of government).

The only way the Tea Party can achieve its goals is to secure majorities in both houses, as well as the Presidency. Even then, they may not achieve much. In order to do that, they will need much more than a fervent minority.

So, you’re saying people started using crack because it was tough to get marijuana? I didn’t know that. (I live a pretty sheltered life.) I didn’t know it was ever difficult to get marijuana.

I didn’t mean to say that legalizing marijuana should be conditional on its ability to rid the world of crack and meth. I have no problem legalizing marijuana. I just don’t think anyone should expect it to have any impact whatever on drug crime, since it seems most drug crime has nothing to do with marijuana. It’s a completely separate problem.

What about legalizing marijuana will do anything about border violence? You lost me there.

Anonymous said...

Look how happy that big guy in the first picture is to be pouring perfectly good swill down the drain. Someone suckered him good...

Anonymous said...

No doubt that Marijuana should be legalized. It in fact is, since anybody can get a medical card without problems(which is a big hypocrisy). It seem to me though that legalizing weed itself is not going to do anything on the violence in Mexico. I am in favor of legalizing and controlling cocaine, investing the revenue generate by the sales taxes on it, on rehabilitation centers, educational centers and etc...

Adam Lee/Siduri Wines said...


Not all of Europe laughed at the Unitd States for Prohibition as many of the Nordic states adopted it as well. Here's a brief timeline:

1907 to 1948 in Prince Edward Island, but for much shorter periods in other provinces in Canada
1914 to 1925 in Russia and the Soviet Union
1915 to 1922 in Iceland (though beer was still prohibited until 1989)
1916 to 1927 in Norway (fortified wine and beer also prohibited from 1917 to 1923)
1919 in Hungary
1919 to 1932 in Finland (called kieltolaki)
1920 to 1933 in the United States

Also, if you haven't read it, you should pick up a copy of "Methland" by Nick Reding. One of the most fascinating books I have read covering the history of meth in America (and a must read given your enjoyment of Breaking Bad.). I am neither arguing for or against the legalization of marijuana, but the surge in meth use in the United States stemmed from a wide-range of causes as explained in this book, much more than a crackdown on pot.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

SUAMW: Couldn't agree more with you on "gateway drug." Like a huge percentage of Americans, I've had-- and inhaled, and enjoyed -- marijuana. But there's no way, short of being kidnapped and having it injected into me, that I would mess around with heroin, or meth for that matter.

Adam: When do you have time to read? Aren't you harvesting grapes all over two states? But seriously, thanks for the recommendation. I often say everything I know about meth I learned from "Breaking Bad" (with apologies to the author of a terrifying NYT article about dentists dealing with "meth mouth.") Sounds like good reading.

Anonymous said...

I would postulate that you cannot win a moral argument. Ergo, how can you legislate morality?

I agree you can pass laws, but you end up with scofflaws due to governed peoples' understanding that the government lacks the moral authority to tell them how to live.

Case in point - the middle east. Why can't they just all get along? Because these peoples' have different morals and have little incentive to recognize/validate the others point of view. Provide incentive and they can find a way.

Regarding underage sexual circumstances you raise, these are issues that a "moral" society will not allow its members to indulge. Discrimination is another area that the government legislates morality as can be seen in college admission selection criteria and tax payer guaranteed loans to fraudulent green energy companies.

It is called picking winners and losers and the government has no business in this arena according to the Constitution. Bag tax anyone? How about re-instating the carbonated beverage tax, or the sugary foods tax?

Perhaps the Constitution would make a good read. It is rich with all the moral authority we need.

David White said...

Blake - Politics has always been a lagging indicator of cultural change; not the other way around. The nation is moving, rapidly, toward acceptance of gay marriage. Don't expect it from the feds anytime soon. (Even Obama is opposed to it.) The nation is rapidly realizing the utter stupidity of the war on drugs, especially with regards to marijuana. Don't expect it from the feds any time soon. Go back to the Civil Rights era - it's the same story.

So sure, the government legislates morality all the time. But it's always late to the party and late to responding where culture has already moved.

Del Sultzer said...

@Adam Lee/Siduri Wines - stumbled through here last week and wanted to say that thanks to your recommdation I picked up a copy of Methland at the library. A profound eye-opener in a number of ways. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

As someone that has used every drug there is yes crack and meth are the worse of the worse. This country would do itself a favor if it followed what Spain has done in their fight against drugs and you have to google it. Those that took the time to read Methland please take the time to read these 2 items this your taxpayers money at work and when 0 and the doj are done with Amerika citizens with these to news items head are way, well we need to fill up all the empty space in the new growth industry private prisons
Tax dollars at work

New laws

WBG please stay with wine and the wonderful story of Alicia Villaneuva


Petar said...

Very interesting! Thanks for sharing.