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Thursday, August 18, 2011

Prohibition: A Window into American Current Events?

Last night we joined 1,000 folks who also paid to see a film clip of the new PBS documentary on Prohibition by Ken Burns, many of whom enjoyed adult beverages from a cash bar.  We were at the Belo Mansion,  currently the home of the Dallas Bar Association. 

Whatever Mr. Burns’ overall point, the clip that we saw showed clearly that amending the U.S. Constitution can’t always   solve a social problem  -- but may spawn many more.

However bad alcohol abuse is now, it was worse before Prohibition, according to Mr. Burns. Those who sought legislative help were responding to a serious social ill.  However, the confluence of varied interest groups, upset over many issues ranging from temperance, the emancipation of women, immigration, religious intolerance, industrialization and presidential campaigns produced an unwavering lobbying effort that swiftly resulted in the 18th  amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Alcohol abuse so troubled the nation – from city streets to rural communities  -- that Americans became persuaded that outlawing alcohol would solve the problems its widespread abuse created. Mr. Burns repeatedly used the term “the Fundamentalists” to explain the distorted politics of Prohibition.  But, all proponents of Prohibition either didn’t understand, or overlooked the facts:
o   Alcohol was part of the religious and cultural lives of countless Americans
o   Many failed to understand the legislation. (For example, many thought beer and wine would be exempt.)

So, the good folks who pushed all that legislating and amending had not fully counted the cost of their solutions.  Hmmmmm . . .  

Moreover, the determination to end legal alcohol sale created an incentive for illegal sales, feeding organized crime, which flourished throughout the 1920’s and ’30’s. Mr. Burns also said speakeasies introduced women to public drinking, which previously had been taboo. Until Prohibition, most women avoided salons; Prohibition open the doors of smart speakeasies and jazz.

In his introduction, Mr. Burns cited Shelby Foote, who has said the reason the U.S. split apart was

. . . because we failed to do what we Americans do best: compromise.  We like to think of ourselves as uncompromising people, but our genius is for compromise, and when that broke down, we started killing each other.

Was Mr. Burns inferring the failed politics preceding the Civil War, were like the events leading to Prohibition – and what we face today?   We will have to wait and see – but the upcoming Burns’ documentary on Prohibition indeed will describe another instance of our genius breaking down again. 

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