Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Unholy Alliances - Lessons From Prohibition

This is a book you’ll want to read before you see the film.

As a series the Ken Burns’ documentary Prohibition will premiere on PBS, October 2nd, 3rd & 4th, airing here in Durham both at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. on WUNC-TV.

It is based on a book I’ve nearly finished entitled Last CallThe Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent and published last year.  In my opinion, reading the book, now out in paperback, will only deepen and enrich the documentary.

There are certainly some comparisons with today, especially given the findings in another book I read last month entitled American GraceHow Religion Divides and Unites Us based on hour-long surveys conducted with a huge number of Americans and then repeated over several years.  Combining scores of other studies, the book illuminates the changing trends in the lives of real Americans and it is full of surprises about American religious life.

What stood out for me in Okrent’s book was the unholy alliance between prohibitionists and Southern racists, without whom the former would have failed.  For the 14 years it was in effect, the Constitutional amendment on prohibition stood as only the second time in history that the Constitution had been amended to curb citizen behavior instead of government behavior, the other being the amendment that ended slavery.

The book documents, in their own words, the motives most Southerners had for supporting prohibition which among others included “sticking it to” the urban and industrialized North and retribution for Reconstruction but primarily to reinforce myths and fears and prejudice about African-Americans and as a means to bolster local and state Jim Crow Laws.

Keep in mind this was the same era when the KKK was revived by a white, nativist, protestant minister and fueled a toxic brew of anti-black, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-union and anti-immigrant sentiment to reach a zenith when 1 in every 29 Americans belonged to the Klan.

Historians such as American University’s Dr. Allan Jay Lichtman in the 2008 book entitled White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement and Stanford University’s Dr. David M. Kennedy in a book published a decade earlier entitled Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War trace the roots of today’s Conservative movement, including “cut, cut cut, states’ rights, balanced budget and worries about a dependent welfare class, forward to this era.

As you’ll read in Last Call and may see in the documentary, prohibition entailed many unlikely alliances and hidden agendas, particularly in the home stretch of the 50-80 year movement’s culmination.  While some such as racism, anti-immigration and intolerance of religious and lifestyle choices seem abhorrent to the American way or did at least were until the advent of the Tea Party.  Others such as women’s suffrage and the progressive income tax are now indelibly part of the American way.

But for me the most eerie of the resemblance with today was the how a very small, single-minded and well organized, fearful minority can overwhelm a democracy.  The prohibition lobby systematically bullied and cowed politicians into ignoring human nature, behavioral science, marketplace innovation and the law of supply and demand and a much larger but less motivated and under-mobilized constituencies much as the polarizing anti-tax pledge does today.

The story of prohibition and its repeal is another lesson about unintended consequences and the importance of striking balanced solutions, something extremely relevant to our America of today.

A good start, regardless of where you fall along the ideological spectrum is to read the book, especially if you are a moderate or an Independent for whom it is a must-read. 

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