Sunday 27 November 2011

Ken Burns' Prohibition: You Might Want To Watch This

"If you want to make kids brush their teeth, make it illegal" - Pete Hamill
I've been lucky enough to have been gifted a copy - only available in or from America for now - of Ken Burns's epic video documenting of US Prohibition. Well, I say gifted, but the truth is that I was hinting at it for Christmas and Mrs P, knowing my frame of mind very well and sensing the urgency, went and bought it for me. Aww, ain't that nice?

At just under six hours, on three DVDs, this is a real opus. Yet packing, as it does, every aspect of 13 years of possibly the most stupid legislation ever conceived into three feature length episodes, it is eminently watchable.

Burns's tale begins in the early 1820s by describing an entirely different world from that we now know. A place where a bell rang twice a day for "grog time" whereby working men could take a break and drink beer. A time before divorce; before women's rights; and before abstinence was even considered a virtue. The puritans who landed in the new continent carried a massive cargo of beer barrels. The US was a country that loved booze.

Certain individuals withdrew from this life, choosing (and that is a very important consideration here) to abstain from alcohol. Their stance was so outlandish that the church of the time objected to it on the grounds that only organised religion should be making such decisions. As the film progresses, it's enlightening how such a ridiculous position could be turned on its head so dramatically, with a new arrogant public health 'church' emerging in its place.

The three DVDs deal with different time frames of the whole sorry story. The drive towards alcohol prohibition; the public reaction after it was ratified; and the hypocrisy and unintended consequences which made its repeal a no-brainer.

The first makes you almost sympathetic with the motives behind those who pushed for controls on alcohol. But what began as a mutual, and voluntary, step to self-prohibit consumption, turned into a drive to coerce everyone else in the country to do likewise. And therein lies the problem, one which we see on a daily basis even now.

Having watched all of this DVD - and admittedly with the benefit of hindsight (but then we all have the same luxury) - that subtle re-alignment of objective was where the prohibitionist movement doomed itself. It's sad that the modern equivalents can't see that their policies are treading the same failed path as others before them.

The first third concluded with prohibitionists in the ascendancy, and somehow jubilant that now a law had been signed off with a few signatures, that people would just stop drinking. Yes, naive in the extreme, but that's truly what they believed.

Of course, that was only the start. If anything, Prohibition just made the mainly rural Christian lobbyists' worst nightmares even worse. For example, the Ku Klux Klan were huge supporters of abstinence, yet Prohibition ushered in an era where blacks were welcomed into bars like never before, and black-led jazz became a cultural phenomenon.

With a wry grin at the thought of smokey-drinkies of today, we heard how one contemporary said at the time, "all that was needed was two bottles and a room" to circumvent the law, and with alcohol producers like Al Capone (and thousands like him) freed from taxation - while enforcement suffered from the starving of duty that alcohol provided - more drinking went on after the Volstead Act was passed, than before.

It also became intensely trendy, with women introduced to the joys of drinking more than any period before or since - something which must have appalled the Women's Christian Temperance Union who were instrumental in the implementation of such a hideous law.

The series also highlights how civil liberties were drastically eroded thanks to the self-centred ideology behind Prohibition. Wire taps were used for the first time to catch people selling products people wanted to buy; poisoning of alcohol was considered perfectly acceptable; and a blind eye was turned to the huge death toll which resulted from private stills and unscrupulous suppliers - and that's without taking into account the Hollywood obsession with gang violence founded thanks to single issue lunatics. Just as the modern prohibitionist movement is equally dismissive of the same damage caused by the criminalisation of ecstasy; the laughable EU ban on snus; the global moves to prohibit e-cigs; and counterfeit tobacco that their blinkered, societally-destructive policies have caused.

Similarities continue with the evident fact that it was the temperance movement's refusal to bend in the face of reasonable objection that eventually made their cause unsupportable. They'd gone too far, but refused to admit it. Herbert Hoover was so in the thrall of the Anti-Saloon League that he commissioned a study into Prohibition which found it to be flawed but ... we'll keep it anyway (they don't even admit flaws anymore). Such blindness to amendment was to lead to a landslide defeat at the next presidential election, but those of our time are equally sucked in by dogma.

Echoes of the past which are recognisable nowadays reverberate through all of the six hours. The constant calls for money by prohibitionists to pay for enforcement and education against human will; the derogation of respect for the law - all laws - which ensued; the contempt for politicians seen to be acting in self-interest; and the futility of thinking that just by banning something, that it will cease to exist.

Prohibition taught us that governments really aren't as powerful as they think they are, and nor are the lobbyists who think they can change human nature by the stroke of a pen. Yet here we are, nearly 80 years later, and they still don't get a lesson from history which should have defined a more proportionate response to the way people choose to live their lives.

Ken Burns has produced a great, and timely, piece which not only charts the history of Prohibition from early beginnings to ultimate humiliation, but also should send a warning to politicians that they need to tread lightly when attempting to stamp on personal freedoms.

Nothing sends that message more than when, the day after Franklin Roosevelt was elected - shown in glorious film by Burns - he laughed as he announced the repeal of a law which should never have been contemplated in the first place. "You're in quite a hurry!", he said, to wild applause. And, as the vote was passed by a huge margin on Capitol Hill, head of the WCTU Emma Boole wept while the celebrations from just about everyone else began.

For anyone who has read - or intends to - Chris Snowdon's The Art of Suppression, this documentary is a must-watch, following hand-in-glove as it does the same themes but with incredibly evocative historic pictures and film which brings the subject matter alive. I can not only highly recommend it, but I hope that it is soon made more easy for UK viewers to watch.

At the moment, you'll need a multi-region DVD player or PC as it is only available in Region 1 format, but if that's not a problem, the US Amazon site will happily supply you, as will many sellers on eBay.

For the full schadenfreude experience, watch with a bottle of Californian wine. I did.


Anonymous said...

Does he by chance relate it to the current smoking ban prohibition at the end or does he gloss over that aspect of things and pretend it doesn't exist?

Anonymous said...

Ken burns glosses right over the current smoking prohibitional laws!

I watched the whole series and nada word except to say in these times we are at the same thing again!

Anonymous said...

I even got on his website and pushed the smoking ban issue and why they didnt cover it,all I got was DELETED after hitting it 6 times in a row! Remeber we are dealing with PBS which is owned by the NAZI anti-smoking liberals!


Anonymous said...

Clearly, prohibitionists have learnt to turn the screw slowly. This method has the advantage of keeping them in jobs for longer. But, eventually, it will come up against 'human nature'.

What really, really annoys me is that the people we elect to defend us against persecution actively support that persecution. That absolutely should not happen. MPs should be permanently on guard against precisely that.

That is why out political system stinks.

Lyn said...

That, Junican, is why it is absolutely crazy to vote these traitors in! We are doing the job for them if we vote for any of the 3 main parties, in particular!

Neal Asher said...

The thing about hindsight, Dick, is that while it is 20/20 for sensible and sane people, NGOs and politicians have their head so far up their own bottoms it's impossible for them.

Anonymous said...

Quoe at top reminds me of Jeremy Clarkson's effect on the sale of jeans to the young.

Nick said...

It has actually been shown on TV in the UK - I saw it a few weeks ago on PBS's new UK channel (somewhere in the mid 200s on Virgin Media) and I expect it will be on again.