what i'm watching: ken burns' "prohibition", an excellent documentary

This week we finished Ken Burns' excellent documentary "Prohibition," and I recommend it highly to everyone who enjoys history. Most of us know at least something about Prohibition, especially how it failed, but I'd bet that much of this film will be eye-opening.

And, if you aren't a regular viewer of Ken Burns' documentaries, this three-parter could serve as a wonderful introduction to his signature style. It's on US Netflix, on PBS, and probably at your local library.

I did know that the early movement against alcohol was deeply rooted in the early US women's movement. Women's anti-alcohol groups, especially the Women's Christian Temperance Union - which still exists! - were the first women to speak out publicly about domestic violence. In the pre-Prohibition United States, the saloon was a male-only domain. Men drank away their family income, then came home and abused their wives and children. Organizing against alcohol was a way of asserting women's and children's rights to live free of abuse. Some amazing feminists drove the women's movement forward through the fight against alcohol.

However, one thing I didn't know was that incredible feminist organizing was also instrumental in getting Prohibition repealed. The "Prohibition" film introduced me to Pauline Sabin, a wealthy New York socialite who used her formidable organizing, fundraising, and speaking skills to leading the movement for repeal. (The repeal movement was also fueled by the Great Depression, as the return of legal brewing, distilling, and winemaking would return millions of Americans to employment.) Another terrific woman you'll meet is Lois Long, who wrote what surely must be the godmother of "Sex and the City", for The New Yorker, under the pen-name "Lipstick".

Here's something else I didn't know: the temperance movement was also deeply rooted in religious and anti-immigrant bigotry. White, Protestant, rural Americans who had been in the country for a few generations sought to curb the behaviour of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants who lived in the teeming cities and gathered in saloons and beer halls. After all, those immigrants were dirty, vulgar, Catholics! The extent that Prohibition equalled anti-Catholic organizing may surprise you.

And, like you, I knew something about the unintended consequences of Prohibition - the speakeasies, the bootleggers, the violence. But I had no idea how widespread it was - how much money was involved, how completely corrupt the whole system was, how many deaths it caused. There was considerably more alcohol being sold and consumed during Prohibition than before or after it. And the attendant crime - politely referred to as organized crime or racketeering, but more properly called gang violence - was beyond anything I had imagined.

Canada figures in this story, of course, from the supply side, but alas, the country gets only a brief cameo. The film doesn't mention the Bronfman family, founders of Seagram, who amassed their first fortune as bootleggers, or Hiram Walker's distillery, conveniently located in Windsor, a very short, bribed boat ride from Detroit, or the many Canadian border towns that thrived off the Prohibition trade.

The parallels to the criminalization of marijuana are obvious, but I saw another contemporary parallel. The Prohibition movement could have been much more successful had it been more flexible. During the movement for Repeal, "wets" gave "drys" many opportunities to amend the Volstead Act to make it less extreme, while still leaving strong restrictions in place. The "drys" refused to compromise. For them, it was full Prohibition or nothing. And because of that, they commanded little popular support. This reminded me of the current anti-abortion-rights movement, hell-bent on alienating potential allies with their extremism.

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