Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ken Burns' Prohibition

I recently finished another great Ken Burns documentary, this one was on the great moral experiment of Prohibition. A writer and recovering alcoholic who has been dry for almost 40 years summed up the reason that moral experiment failed by stating that alcoholism has been destroying lives since 1820, 1920 and still today and that while about 10% of the population has always suffered from this terrible disease, a nation cannot pass a law designed for just the 10% of the population that has a problem. I thought that was a great point. And as I've gotten into the (bad?) habit of doing lately, I want to share some quotes from that documentary.

"The history of the United States can be told in eleven words:
Columbus, Washington, Lincoln, Volstead, two flights up and ask for Gus." - New York Evening Sun

"After prohibition, after everyone had seen how devastating it was to morals and policing, to
government, really a failure; people were picking up the pieces - in fact, trying to make
sense of it. The key thing, though, to picking up the pieces after prohibition is that the
same God that laughs at our folly (there was folly in prohibition) still holds us responsible,
still wants us to build a better society, a better world, and doesn't disdain human endeavor.
I think that past prohibition, you were picking up the pieces and trying to find a new moral
framework for improving America without quite so much pride and arrogance and self-assurance as the prohibitionists had." - Theologian Martin Marly

"Over the years, there have been calls upon congress, by one group of Americans or another
for constitutional amendments that would impose their version of morality upon the rest of their fellow citizens. All have been defeated, at least in part, because of the memory of prohibition and the unintended consequences that accompanied it, remain fresh more than 3/4 of a century after it ended." - Geoffrey C. Ward

"Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though
it be written in letters of gold across the sky. It is the prohibition that makes anything precious."
- Mark Twain

And my final thought from this great historical documentary is that the more things change in American life, the more things stay the same in American politics. I'll give the examples from the politics of the first quarter of the 20th Century and you all can make the connections to the present state of political affairs.

- Politicians blatantly disregarded the laws they passed, even getting rich off the breaking
of those laws (i.e. President had liquor in his cabinet meetings, bootleggers delivered
to the Capital building and the congressman who had introduced the Volstead Act was later
caught with a distillery on his Texas farm
- One group of Americans set themselves up as "real Americans" in contrasting themselves
with immigrant Americans (i.e. non-German, rural, Protestant Americans said some nasty stuff
about Catholic, immigrant, poor and urban Americans)
- Rampant xenophobia whipped into a war-time frenzy (i.e. the killing of a man for speaking German to a neighbor during WWI,
the slogan, "A vote for booze is a vote for the Huns," and the burning of German textbooks and
the renaming of sauerkraut into something with "freedom in its name
- The government's violent solutions escalating problems (i.e. the shooting of bootleggers
and prohibition entrenching organized crime into American urban life)
- The religious right trying to legislate morality through dirty politics
(i.e. the Anti-Saloon league)
- Big corporations preying upon the poor underclass (i.e. the major beer producers
opening "local" breweries that siphoned off money from the poor)
- Nonviolent movements changing society (i.e. the Woman's Christian Temperance Union)
- Hysterical political rhetoric (i.e. the KKK and the religious right working together
to make wild claims about a democratic, "wet", Catholic presidential candidate)

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