Column | Prohibition: the countdown to 100 years
It’s time to brush up on your knowledge of speakeasies, bathtub gin, demon rum, homebrew, bootlegging and other icons of the Roaring Twenties.
January 16 marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, which set in motion the criminalization of the production, importation, transportation and sale of alcoholic beverages a year later.
I hope everyone will spend the coming year studying up on the fascinating controversies surrounding the 13 years of “the Noble Experiment.” Visit your library, watch the 2011 Ken Burns documentary or Google “pros and cons of Prohibition.”
Sassy Americans think they know all there is to know about Prohibition or the McCarthy era or the Civil War, but most possess only superficial understanding.
When it comes to American history, the average American (present company exempted) has the acumen of a sack of wet rocks. Rocks, of course, are of three different types: igneous, metamorphic and, uh... parliamentary.
(Okay, Americans also have the acumen of a sack of wet rocks when it comes to SCIENCE.)
Everyone “knows” that Prohibition was a complete failure (enriching organized crime and shrinking tax revenue) and a power-grab by mean-spirited, morality-legislating Puritans; but the truth is more complicated.
For instance, there is no concrete evidence that sadistic prohibitionists sought a Wall, so they could play 78 rpm records of “99 bottles of beer on the wall, 99 bottles of beer, Try and fail to take one down, still 99 bottles of beer on the wall...”
Despite underfunding of law enforcement (which opened the door to police corruption), Prohibition brought an increase in productivity, a decline in disorderly conduct and a dramatic drop in deaths from cirrhosis of the liver.
The temperance movement was not focused solely on spoiling people’s fun. Those early progressives campaigned for better housing and working conditions, so workers who had formerly performed back-breaking tasks 80 hours a week and lived in shacks wouldn’t feel the need to “drown their sorrows” at the local saloon.
I’m not saying we’ve gotten soft, but maybe we take those reforms for granted. (“After 40 hours of watching the clock at work, I have to sprawl in my air-conditioned man cave? I need two beer hats.”)
Much of the case against Prohibition stems from its turning liquor into “forbidden fruit” and enticing citizens to want it more, sort of like “If you tyrants won’t let me date Snake, I’ll just climb out of my bedroom window!” So, we’re proud that America is one big hormonal teenager. Yeah, we really need to be on the U.N. Security Council.
If this “reverse psychology” thing works as well as people claim, why don’t we have campaigns that mandate “Employees must not wash their hands after using the restroom,” “Pants must drag the ground” and “Thou shalt not miss the chance to swipe a handicapped parking space”?
Granted, in our Enlightened Times we have bragging rights about social drinking, responsible drinking, designated drivers and health benefits of drinking.
If only we could apply these principles to other areas of life.
“Yes, I’m breaking wind; but at least I’m doing it at a black-tie event.”
“I am responsibly redecorating the nursery with asbestos and lead paint.”
“Maybe I’m a cannibal, but at least I eat low-cholesterol people.”
“Yes, I was shouting racial slurs from the car; but to cancel that out, my driver was a MIME.”
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