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Culture Cafe

'Prohibition' – so much more than gangsters and flappers

This Sunday (8 to 10 p.m. EDT) Ken Burns turns his prodigious research efforts and illuminating camerawork loose on America's failed attempt to sober up.

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It was a way for small town America to get back to some idealized, never-happened vision of America....

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The original social impulse was how to help people who were afflicted with addiction to alcohol. But all of a sudden it really got hijacked.

The politics behind passing and then repealing the 18th Amendment seems very contemporary.

The politics is no different.... One of the things I’ve spent my entire professional life trying to do is to remove the onus of the past. That is to say, we in the present exert an enormous arrogance over past events. It has to do with the fact that we’re here and they’re not. And what we fail to do is to extend to those people who went before us the full lives that we live now. They lived just as rich existences as we do. And we fail to understand that.

Could the “drys” have saved the amendment if they had been willing to compromise?
I don’t know whether they could have saved it.... The moral certainty is so great that they can’t see – what they want is more and more enforcement – which is only going to make the problem worse.

This had in it very legitimate progressive ideas, that America could improve itself. If you look at the spate of amendments starting in 1865, they are all about taking the preamble of the Constitution literally – we’re there to make a more perfect union. That while the Constitution heretofore has been a dry, operating instruction manual for how to do it, we now have eliminated slavery, we now have extended voting rights to African-Americans, we aren’t going to discriminate on the basis of race.

Oh, by they way, we’re going to have an income tax to redistribute the wealth. Oh, by the way, we’re going to elect our senators directly. Oh, by the way, we’re going to eliminate alcohol. Oh, by the way, we’re going to allow women to vote.

This is an amazing time of a very positive sense that government could be a major force in creating that shining city on the hill ... we were obligated to fix society.

And what people, perhaps naively, perhaps blindly, fixed on was the notion that you could do it all by getting rid of alcohol.

It turns out that the thing you can’t have, alcohol, is what you want the most?
Mark Twain said “Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits.” But his last line is, “It is the prohibition that makes anything precious.”

We do still legislate against other “sins” such as gambling, smoking, use of drugs.
Let’s set the record straight: We do legislate morality. We have laws against murder. We have laws against stealing....

The rub is in all these places where we’re not sure, where we perceive a victimless crime.... [Prohibition] asks questions about how we handle gambling [today], how we handle drugs, particularly.

Did anything good come from going through prohibition?
I think that we’re suspicious of the panacea, the magic bullet, the cure all.

We learned a lesson?
In some ways the whole story is a positive one for a democratic people. We had this notion, however naive but very democratic, that we could vote in this notion that we thought would help society. It didn’t, and we got rid of it. That’s a good story – oops, we made a mistake.

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