11.22.2013

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However, one thing I didn't know was that incredible feminist organizing was also instrumental in getting Prohibition repealed.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.

14 comments:

laura k said...

A tangent, and I hope deang is reading. In a segment about Al Capone and the out-of-control violence tearing through Chicago, one elected official called for the US to withdraw its Marines from Nicaragua and be sent to Chicago.

I grabbed the remote, I had to hear that again! US Marines "to withdraw from Nicaragua"?? What were the US Marines doing in Nicaragua in the 1920s...??

deang said...

Thanks, Laura! Interesting tangent and sounds like an interesting film. As a decided non-drinker, I've long wanted to learn more about the Prohibition era but haven't yet.

I'd have to check to be sure, but I think in the 1920s the US Marines were in Nicaragua repressing the original Sandinistas and installing the murderous Somoza family who would rule the country until the Sandinista revolution of the late 1970s. Nicaragua was intended by US capitalists to be one of several Central American "banana republics" to be used for fruit exports.

johngoldfine said...

My wife's grandmother, the wife of a Methodist minister, was at one time before Prohibition the head of the Pennsylvania chapter of the WCTU. Her grandchildren--Jean and her siblings--were required as children to solemnly sign the pledge to never drink alcohol or smoke tobacco. Caffeine was also frowned on, even if not absolutely forbidden.

She was intelligent, confident, instrumental--but also a child of her era: small-town, anti-immigration (immigrants were so often drinkers!), anti-Catholic (Catholics even had wine in their churches!), a believer in the social gospel, but also a believer in the popular eugenic theories of the day. A person we can't accurately catch in the filters we judge by today....

The Marines? "Send in the Marines" was a popular phrase back in the day and sent they were: Central America, China, Haiti, etc--our glorious empire!

deang said...

From History Matters:

"The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 warned European powers to stay out of Latin America, including Central America, which had a particular importance to the United States because of its proximity. By the early 20th century, U.S. companies dominated the economies of Central American republics, including Nicaragua, controlling most of the banana production, railroads, port facilities, mines, and banking institutions. The United States intervened in Nicaragua repeatedly to protect U.S. economic interests. In 1912 U.S. marines landed once again to maintain a pro-American government; this occupation lasted until 1925."

laura k said...

A person we can't accurately catch in the filters we judge by today....

That is so often the case when I learn about strong and influential women from various points in history! Thanks for the personal connection, John.

Re Marines, I'm aware of the general scope and use, I was wondering about more specifics. I knew it would have to do with: (a) fruit, (b) dictators, and (c) Ye Olde Monroe Doctrine.

Thanks, deang!

laura k said...

I should probably clarify my first comment, above. It was meant more rhetorically, as in: Goddamn the US has been interfering in Latin America a fucking long time!

laura k said...

The three episodes of the Prohibition film are titled "A Nation of Drunkards", "A Nation of Scofflaws", and "A Nation of Hypocrites".

John F said...

I watched "Prohibition" when it was first broadcast on PBS in 2011. I loved the part where it was mentioned that after the US entered WW1, anti-German sentiment led some people to call sauerkraut "Liberty Cabbage". It really put "Freedom Fries" in perspective.

laura k said...

Growing up, I heard about Liberty Cabbage from my mom - the expression was revived for WWII. So when Freedom Fries (and Freedom Toast!) came along, I had that context already. :)

John F said...

I didn't know about the WW2 revival. In fact, "Prohibition" was the first time I'd heard of "Liberty Cabbage".

I wonder why this sort of jingoistic rebranding is limited to food? I don't recall anyone in 1979 bragging about their 300 knots per square inch Democracy carpet...

allan said...

During WWI, it was not limited to food. Street names were changed, "dachshund" and "kindergarten" were not used, town symphonies were forbidden to play Bach or Beethoven, German was no longer taught in schools. German immigrants anglicized their last names. In Boston Common, JFK's grandfather (who was the city's Mayor) presided over a huge public bonfire of German books.

impudent strumpet said...

Kitchener, Ontario used to be called Berlin, and was renamed during WWI. ("Kitchener" being the name of some famous WWI army guy whose specifics I'm too lazy to google at the moment.)

Not to mention that the British royal family renamed itself during WWI from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor to sound less German and more British. (The name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha originated from Queen Victoria's husband.)

laura k said...

Kitchener, Ontario used to be called Berlin, and was renamed during WWI.

Shortly after we moved to Canada, I did a little solo road trip to Kitchener, and saw all these German-themed stores - it was obvious there was (or at least had been) a German-speaking community. Later, on wmtc, I asked if there had been anti-German bigotry during either war... and was told that the town used to be called Berlin! I was amazed.

Not to mention that the British royal family renamed itself

Who us, German? Nothing to see here...




laura k said...

Street names were changed, "dachshund" and "kindergarten" were not used, town symphonies were forbidden to play Bach or Beethoven, German was no longer taught in schools. German immigrants anglicized their last names. In Boston Common, JFK's grandfather (who was the city's Mayor) presided over a huge public bonfire of German books.

Really shows you the level of sophistication of the culture at the time, or lack thereof. All this around a war that no one understood, and had to be dragged into through lies and propaganda. Or maybe because of that?