The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State
By Lisa McGirr
Al Bell with Sarah Smallhouse and Deborah Gain Braley, Phoeniz, AZ
At first, I did not tune in to why Lisa McGirr’s new book is so incredibly relevant to our current political war zone. It turns out to be one of the most valuable books I have read in recent months—and I read about one a week.
She tells the story of the Prohibition era from a much broader and deeper perspective than we get from the myth of Prohibition. That common version is driven by images of a failed social experiment best represented by visions of speakeasies, mobsters, flappers, moonshiners, and FBI agents breaking down saloon doors. Like most things that are alleged to be true, that image contains some truth, but it is highly inaccurate and, worse, painfully misleading.
If you only read one paragraph of this review, here it is. If you care deeply about our Nation and its unending struggle to reach its potential, The War on Alcohol offers insights that can significantly inform your contribution to that cause. It documents a classic case of advantaged Americans intentionally and aggressively intimidating and exploiting less advantaged Americans almost 100 years ago. We are there again, but magnified exponentially. There is much to learn here.
It is true that Prohibition failed on at least two counts: 1) it promoted drinking rather than eliminating it, and 2) it gave impetus (some would say, birth) to a wild and unrestrained cultural shift based on alcohol, first in the big cities and then spreading throughout the land. The price was high and it still is.
The story of Prohibition is not just about alcohol. That was the premise, but the premise was soon polluted by the targeted and highly discriminatory enforcement regimes that prevailed during the 14 years between the 18th and 21st Amendments to our Constitution. It is a story of arrogant Protestant religious zealots who looked down on “lesser” recent immigrants, Catholics, Negroes, minorities, and the poor, who were viewed as threats to traditional Christian moral standards of behavior. Meanwhile, those with money and political connections, as well as the criminally inclined, prospered and capitalized on the federally imposed constraints on access to alcohol. In truth, all of those who claimed special privilege violated the law, too. It’s just that relatively few of them were ever punished.
The power of this intensive investigation of the real nature of Prohibition is that it exposes the pain and tragedy visited upon the target populations by selective enforcement. This part of history is seldom told; those who suffer the most usually have neither the ability to tell their story nor the platform from which it can be shared. While I only note it here, the role of the Ku Klux Klan, in partnership with Protestant ministers, public officials and such activist organizations as the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is a sad and reprehensible sub-plot in the story.
Other consequences are thoroughly revealed: the vast growth in Federal law enforcement organizations and roles; the extensive expansion of our penal system that continues to haunt us even today, with its terrible cost in treasure and lives wasted; and the lightning shift that moved the power base of targeted populations from their historic association with the “Party of Lincoln” to the Democratic Party. This latter sea change set the stage for the New Deal and subsequent legislation that dominated the political landscape for decades.
Reading this book is sometimes uncomfortable. That is what happens when the truth reveals things that we would rather hadn’t happened or would rather keep in the shadows if they did. Ms. McGirr casts light on the extreme hypocrisy of the times.
This slice of American history illuminates intended and, more importantly, unintended consequences of one group of Americans (us) telling another group of Americans (them) how they should live their lives, insisting that (they), being lesser humans, must now abide by rules of personal behavior that (we), being the real Americans, rightfully impose upon them. Really?
Does this sound familiar? Have you tuned in to the Republican Party Presidential candidates lately? Americans have heard this before. Ms. McGirr tells us when, where, how, why, and with what consequences.
A detail of her writing I must applaud is typically missing from histories and should be a universal practice. She routinely expresses cost information in both historic and current dollar values. This is the only way for the reader to appreciate the true magnitude of what is being presented. Bravo!
The author packs a great deal of information into just over 250 pages. It is not an easy read, but an extremely important one.
We are at a new level in the schism between Americans, but with vastly magnified capabilities to escalate distortion and dysfunction—and to do so at lightning speed. That schism draws much of its energy from a contemporary us/them emotional heat, just as we saw during Prohibition. Fear, anger, frustration, and distrust stalk the land. Much of it is justified. Once again, the search is on for scapegoats. They are readily available, as always—and the true culprits generally skate free.
The keystone of Lisa McGirr’s tale comes at the end. The same righteous mentality that drove Prohibition also empowers our so-called war on drugs, but on steroids. At some point, we need to confront the exponential cost in lives and treasure that mentality promotes. This book would be a fine beginning point for that dialogue.
For those Americans motivated to repeat this pattern, it might be worth a simple warning, based on our Prohibition experience: be very careful what you wish for.
Al Bell is an activist with Independent Voters for Arizona.