TV tip: Prohibition

Hey, kids! Let’s talk about booze, sex, and immoral behavior! WOOOO!

Or rather, let’s talk about the historic context for those in the U.S. and how a political and social movement to ban alcohol actually ended up fueling all the vices it hoped to eradicate/regulate.

To that end, I HIGHLY recommend Ken Burns’ series that just aired on PBS called Prohibition. Burns is a skilled documentary maker, and he always finds really interesting people to talk on the films and he gets great archival material and super soundtracks. This one is no exception. You can find out more about it and see the episodes RIGHT HERE AT THIS LINK, along with some great information about the era and the history of the movement, which, my friends, dawned some 80 years before the 18th Amendment was actually passed in 1920. It was the first and remains the only amendment to the Constitution that has actually curtailed rights in this country.

I’m a historian, and sociopolitical movements like Prohibition prove fascinating to study because of the myriad layers. The movement was fueled by religious fundamentalism, but it ended up providing a venue for women to enter the public sphere and engage in radical civil protest that was considered appropriate for them, given that they were trying to put an end to drink to save the household.

The movement was also fueled by xenophobia and “Drys” directed a lot of their ire at the onslaught of immigrants who entered this country in the late 19th century and early 20th from European and eastern European countries. Tied up in that was anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism (the movement was Protestant), directed again at many immigrants to this country. The Dry movement framed its arguments in terms of “true Americanism.” Those who don’t drink are somehow better and more American than all the slovenly immigrants/Catholics/Jews who bring their drinking habits with them and try to ruin the country.

However, as you’ll see, when you try to outlaw something, and basically legislate morality with a self-righteous “we know best for you” approach, chances are, lots of people are going to flout that. And, indeed, that happened. Illegal alcohol sales and production climbed, thousands of illegal bars mushroomed in cities across the country, and for the first time in U.S. history, women were going to these clubs. Because when nobody is supposed to do it, then everybody does it and all bets are off. Hence, the 1920s Jazz Era created the social milieu in which traditional boundaries within the realms of sex, gender, and sexuality were tested, crossed, and ignored. Crime escalated, too, as big crime bosses developed illegal booze businesses (think cartels) and as a result of that, violence escalated.

This is a great series, and it provides a window into our past. I said elsewhere that if you want to understand America today, look to the past. You’ll definitely see some parallels in the political and social movement of temperance and some of the movements on the political landscape today. There are lessons to be learned from history, and I’m always amazed when I delve into it that the more things change, the more they do stay the same, in many telling ways.

Here’s a trailer for “Prohibition” to wet your whistle.

Happy watching!