Review: “Prohibition”

Having now seen all three segments of Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “Prohibition”, which concluded last evening on PBS, I have the chance to share some of my thoughts about the film, with those among my readers who give some passing deference to my opinions on such matters (a fact which continues to astonish me no end.)  In the case of this particular film, Mr. Burns not only captured my interest in a subject which, like many Americans, I thought I already understood, but he also opened up new areas of inquiry for me to examine now that the film is over.  And because of this, I have to tip my hat to him and his team for producing a piece that was not only educational and entertaining, but which will have legs long after the memories of specific moments in it have faded away.

I suspect that most of my American readers, when it came time to study the Prohibition era in American history class in secondary school, focused more on some of the easier questions and answers about this period, and had more interest in its cultural aspects.  We looked at the Temperance movement and women’s suffrage, the miseries of crowded slums and rapid industrialization, and thought that we understood from a sociological perspective how Prohibition came to be.  We then topped off that very general knowledge with a smattering of information about characters such as Al Capone, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Warren Harding, and Duke Ellington, and believed that we “got” that time period.

Prohibition turns out to have been a far more complicated story than what Sister led me to believe, pressed for time as she was with lesson plans which insisted she get us at least to the Vietnam era by the end of the academic year.  For example, from a purely practical perspective, Prohibition would not have been possible without the creation of an alternative dedicated revenue stream.  For many years prior to the passage of the Volstead Act, enshrined as the 18th Amendment, a gigantic amount of government revenue came from taxes levied on the production and sale of alcohol.  It was, in effect, a sort of cash cow of sin, which the government could milk whenever it needed, somewhat like state and local governments do with the tobacco industry today.

President Abraham Lincoln, who actually sold alcohol himself when he was a shopkeeper, turned to taxation on alcohol in 1862 and again in 1864 to help pay for the costs of the Civil War.  When we consider not only the enormous quantities of alcohol people drank in that era, from breakfast through dinner, due to the lack of a clean water supply, but also that in many cases alcohol was the only medicine available to use as a pain killer for huge numbers of men wounded in the fighting, this amounted to a very large sum, indeed.  This was also an era when distilleries, brewers, saloons, taverns, and so on were ubiquitous, in what from the film’s images and descriptions show to be infinitely greater numbers than exist today, when zoning regulations keep both the production and sale of alcohol under strict geographic control.

When the 16th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1913, giving Congress the power to levy individual income tax across the country without using apportionment to “spread the pain”, as it were, the revenues collected from alcohol were no longer an issue.  Bureaucrats could no longer stress to temperance lobbyists the importance of that particular area of taxation as being the single largest funder of government programs: a kind of Sword of Damocles hanging over the Republic which must never be interfered with.  The combination of this change in the law along with other factors – World War I, direct election of U.S. Senators via the 17th Amendment, and so on – are all part of the mechanism that kept the temperance movement rolling like a juggernaut towards Prohibition.

Yet far deeper than the legal practicalities and policy factors which led to the implementation of Prohibition, the ugly truth behind the movement is that it was inextricably tied up with Anti-Catholicism, something of which I was only dimly aware before this film.  It surprises me that the nuns in my private school did not make me more aware of this fact when we studied the Prohibition era, but then perhaps they thought my classmates and I too young to understand a world in which we could be discriminated against for being a Catholic. Mr. Burns’ film has to tell many stories of course, and so he cannot focus exclusively on what we might call the “Catholic angle” of the story.  However, given that I am a proud practitioner of popery, allow me to point out that Prohibition would never have happened but for an enormous and vocal group of Protestant Evangelicals, who outright hated Catholics, as well as anyone who was not of Anglo-Saxon descent.

This is not a pleasant thing to say, of course, but then many truths in history are unpleasant. The documentary clearly shows how a real loathing and mistrust of Catholic immigrants, not only for their religious practices but also because their attitudes towards the use of alcohol, completely took hold of the white Protestant Low-Church wing of the National psyche. If you were a fervent Baptist in 1898 America and saw your new German or Italian neighbors celebrating the First Communion of their child in the front parlor, with a big family party full of strange music and plenty of beer and wine, you probably felt as though the world was coming to an end – or that at the very least that the arrival of the Antichrist was getting closer.

As time went on following the implementation of Prohibition, things did not improve. For example, the anti-Catholic, racist Protestant Evangelist Bob Jones, Sr., founder of the university which bears his name, told the Associated Press during the Presidential Campaign of 1928: “I would rather see a saloon on every corner than a Catholic in the White House. I would rather see a n—— as president.” This was in response to the Presidential campaign of former New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic and an outspoken challenger of Prohibition. A great irony of history, as Mr. Burns points out in the film, is that one of Governor Smith’s most vocal opponents, a prominent U.S. government prosecutor of Prohibition scofflaws who spoke at a convention of Protestant ministers and, as described in the film, appeared to be calling for religious warfare against Catholics, eventually became disillusioned with Prohibition and converted to Catholicism herself.

Such stories as these are woven throughout the film, enough so to make everyone in the audience feel a bit uncomfortable about what their ancestors did, regardless of their religion, politics, or ethnic background. It is an enthralling tale, well-told, which provides the viewer who has an interest in American history, law, and culture with an infinite number of avenues for subsequent exploration. Some of the stories told by Mr. Burns in the film have become lodged in my brain, and will lead me to read and explore more about the people and themes which he treated in this documentary. In the end, perhaps this is the best indicator of the value of his work, and why you should see it: you will come away wanting to know more.


“Speakeasy, New York City” by Margaret Bourke-White (1933)

Cutting Twitter Some Slack

Last evening I caught the first episode of Ken Burns’ new documentary, “Prohibition” – on which more anon, as the series progresses – and noted that one of the commentators on the program was Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman.  I have been familiar with Prof. Feldman for a number of years, from the excessive amount of time I have spent watching C-Span Book TV on lazy, Sunday afternoons.  Weekend C-Span is a place where those of us who like to listen to discussions of history, culture, and public policy tend to gather from the comfort of our couches, and drift in and out of consciousness, as we hear debates on topics such as whether Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from bipolar disorder.   Prof. Feldman is also inevitably one of the more nattily dressed people on C-Span, and even though I often disagree with his conclusions about the future of American foreign policy, as something of a clotheshorse myself I have often tipped my hat to him on that score.

Among Prof. Feldman’s contributions to the first episode of “Prohibition”, were some particularly interesting insights with respect to how key changes in other laws had to take place in order for the 18th Amendment to become legally and fiscally practicable.  As a Catholic of Iberian descent, I have always found the entire concept of the prohibition of alcohol and its rationale – such as the notion that Jesus and the early Christians drank non-alcoholic grape juice – to be completely ludicrous.  Then again, I did not live in 1900 America where there were saloons on every corner, and drunken louts fighting in the streets.

After the first episode ended, I decided to see if Prof. Feldman was on Twitter, so that I might drop him a line to compliment his work on the film.  As it turns out, he is not, or if he is he does not use his proper name as his Twitter handle.  However what I did find, curiously enough, was an article of his published yesterday in Business Week on the subject of Twitter and its applicability in the future of political movements.  [N.B. Ah, the vagaries of Twitter: how very randomly interconnected it is, if you make the effort to spend some time there.]

Essentially, Prof. Feldman’s thesis is that while Twitter can bring people together for events, whether social or political, it is not yet a substitute for the hardscrabble work of real political action, nor does it possess in virtual form enough of the human element of charisma that is a necessary part of bringing a movement to fruition.  Indeed, as Ken Burns’ documentary showed last evening, there were many fits and starts by various groups before Prohibition finally became a viable political movement.  It took real organization – in an age long before Twitter – to make that truly odd chapter of American history happen.

In this respect, and following somewhat along Prof. Feldman’s lines, one can see how Twitter is something like a virtual saloon from Ken Burns’ film.  Here one can gather with those of like opinions, and attack those who disagree with those opinions, but with hashtag insults and blocking, rather than with drunken fisticuffs and dueling with broken beer bottles.  There is always plenty of talk of politics on Twitter, of course.  And there is also plenty of talk about entertainment – particularly sports, which sends me away from Twitter for many hours, as I have written about previously.  Yet there seems to be very little in the way of deep conversation.

Is this a bad thing?  Does it mean that those of us who enjoy spending time on Twitter are incapable of forming more complex thoughts?  Is it impossible for the average tweeter to engage in meaningful conversations at a deeper level than what passes for humor in the Twitterverse?

Perhaps for some people on Twitter this is true.  It has been appalling to discover that thousands of people with access to digital technology are incapable of using proper spelling or grammar within a limit of 140 characters.  Lindsay Lohan is the Twitter equivalent of Mrs. Gaskell, by comparison to many of these individuals.

However, Twitter at its best can also be something akin to an artistic forum, when it is used by those who appreciate the flexibility of words for creative purposes.  Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it is not something which many are capable of doing well; this requires a certain appreciation for the English language that is often lacking today.  The bon mot, so long vanished from most of today’s rather banal entertainments, is very much alive on Twitter.

And a bit more frequently than the perfect turn of phrase, which has always been elusive, I find that some of the best tweets come from the unexpected connections or juxtapositions that arise from a particularly observant tweeter keeping his wits about him.  Take for example, this example of an observational tweet from my youngest brother, or this equally observant but unexpected juxtaposition from Georgetown Patch Editor-in-Chief Shaun Courtney.  True, neither of these good people plans – so far as I am aware – to ignite a political movement, but then, it does not seem to me as though there is a requirement that they do so.

Twitter can be a tool, and a very effective one when used well, but we need to cut it some slack.  Prof. Feldman would argue that, at least in its current incarnation, and on this point at least I would have to agree, Twitter cannot substitute for real political action when attempting to change a government or a policy.  Yet that being said, one can and should allow Twitter to be what it is, i.e. a kind of giant text messaging machine, and leave it at that.  Fortunately, the more I use Twitter, the more I realize what a profoundly useful tool it is for connecting people of like interests incredibly quickly, so long as Twitter is simply the means by which to come to be introduced to such people, rather than an end unto itself.

Imagine if temperance vigilante Carrie Nation had access to Twitter back in the day…