Monday, February 27, 2012

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent


Promoting his new documentary based on this book, Ken Burns riffed on the title of his previous series on America's national parks and quipped that "Slavery was America's worst idea. I'm not sure if prohibition was the second-worst, but it's probably up there." But slavery is a very old idea, and one that, once established, was very economically difficult to extract from our society. I'm always fascinated by prohibition (along with the HUAC hearings and the Japanese internment camps), because it's an incredibly bad idea that was enacted in the 20th century. As far as I can tell, it came out of nowhere. How did this happen? How does an idea like banning alcohol suddenly take root in America?

When I started reading this book, I was obviously looking for some insight. I was interested to see how it could be reflected in today's politics. But if you go back to the early 20th Century, you find that today's politics simply don't map onto the politics of those days. There's just not much analogy to be made. None of the divides seem to match up with what we have now. To give you an example, prohibition was advocated by the most progressive groups of the time, including suffragettes like Susan B. Anthony, and also by the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, the success of women's suffrage movement is in some small part owed to the idea that if women had the vote, we could finally pass prohibition.

Women were a large part of the prohibition movement, and not for any prudish reasons. Alcohol, and saloon culture, was a bane to the life of women. Men would get off work at the factory and head to the saloon, blow through their paychecks, come home drunk and abuse their wives, and maybe bring home a case of the clap that they caught from one of the prostitutes that serviced men at the saloon. The solution to this problem, of course, would be political, social and economic equality for women, but this idea was so foreign that it was impossible to visualize. A world where women had the vote and could use the government to end men's access to liquor was easier to imagine than a world in which women could determine their own fate, support themselves, choose to dump abusive men. There's a lesson in there. (This is all implicit in Okrent's book, but in Ken Burns' documentary, it is made explicit by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, one of the excellent talking heads Burns lined up.) Jack London, who comes off as just as big an asshole in this book as he does in Burns' Jack Johnson doc, first writes against suffrage, then embraces it because he knows it will lead to prohibition, which he feels is the only thing that will save him from alcoholism.

But as we get closer to the passing of the actual law, we do start to see a little reflection of today in the political realm. Prohibition gains popular support by becoming a culture war issue attached to identity politics. It's basically a giant FUCK YOU to the immigrant population detested by the WASPs that see themselves as "real Americans." Immigrants--mostly Catholic, also Jewish, are a subject of hatred. Down south, the same attitudes apply toward black folks. In fact, there's an interesting side note in the KKK, who at some point realizes that their focus on black people doesn't sell well outside the south, but if they add hatred of Catholics, Jews and immigrants, they can expand their brand. The Klan ends up being more popular in Ohio than in Alabama. The First World War is a boon to the cause: now all those German-American beer manufacturers are looked upon with a new layer of suspicion. Growing up Catholic, I remember being surprised when I heard how much shit JFK got for being a Catholic and running for president. I had always seen us as mainstream white people. But man, you really get a sense of the visceral hatred people had for Catholics in the early 20th Century in this book.

Once prohibition passes, things get even more interesting. In a sense, this is the part of the story you already know: circumventing the law becomes a national pastime, and the mob becomes a huge business on bootlegging profits. But there's so much more to the story! Manufacturing "sacramental wine" becomes a huge business. At one point, grape manufacturers are selling blocks of grape concentrate with detailed instructions on what NOT to do in order to avoid turning it into wine. Beer companies sell similar kits that can manufacture beer, with detailed warnings to avoid doing just that. Of course, there are the stories of gangsters and speakeasys, bootleggers and offshore suppliers, that everyone knows a little bit about, but even legitimate businesses made millions off of people trying to get around prohibition.

Burns' documentary diverges a bit from Okrent's book during this period. Okrent talks about Al Capone, of course, but he insists that Capone isn't really that major a figure in anything other than the public consciousness. He's just a typical gangster, who happens to have style and a desire for publicity. Burns spends a lot more time on the career and trial of Capone. Burns also introduces us to a great character, whom I don't recall being in the book, by the name of Lois Long, who writes a column about speakeasy nightlife for The New Yorker under the pseudonym Lipstick. On the other hand, Okrent does give the real lowdown on Joe Kennedy, determining that the stories that he made his fortune off of bootlegging are not backed up by any evidence (although it seems less like malicious political libel than like a bad game of telephone).

What is encouraging, when looking at it through the lens of today's politics, is how quickly prohibition, after being law for 24 years, crumbles. Not quickly as in six months, mind you, but once the tide starts turning, it keeps turning. The whole 24-year span of time seems to match up to a waxing and waning of public support for the idea. When you're caught in the middle of a political movement, it can seem to take forever, but in the long run, when you look back, you see pretty rapid change. And ultimately, what seals the fate of the 18th Amendment is the Great Depression. Suddenly, it becomes ludicrous to have an entire industry outlawed. Maybe our own drug prohibition, or at least marijuana prohibition, is doomed to meet the same fate for the same reasons. I'm crossing my fingers but not holding my breath.

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