Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call," talks about Prohibition

Daniel Okrent, author of "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition," talks about the booze ban that rattled a nation.

Outside of a few cultural touchstones like "The Great Gatsby" and "The Untouchables" (and the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire"), Americans have largely forgotten about Prohibition.

Congress approved it. All 48 states but Connecticut and Rhode Island ratified it. And by the time all was said – but not yet done – a nationwide ban on alcohol was written into the Constitution.

Nice try, but no success.

Prohibition, perhaps the nation's grandest experiment in social do-good-ism, was doomed to become an epic failure. Upstanding and not-so-upstanding citizens alike chose to break the law, inspiring criminal gangs to provide their liquor. Legal loopholes turned into gaping canyons. And dangerous back-alley alcohol took lives.

Outside of a few cultural touchstones like "The Great Gatsby" and "The Untouchables" (and the new HBO series "Boardwalk Empire"), we've largely forgotten about Prohibition. Journalist Daniel Okrent brings the era back to life in his book Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, which came out in 2010. He describes how "a mighty alliance of moralists and progressives, suffragists and xenophobes" pushed for the alcohol ban and set the template for today's political activism.

"Last Call," which Monitor reviewer Alexander Nazaryan called "popular history at its best," is now out in paperback. I called Okrent to ask about the reaction to the book and Prohibition's lessons for today.

Q: What has been the reaction to the book?

A: The general reaction is, "I didn't know any of that stuff." And I can respond, "Neither did I."

Prohibition is a very important chapter, but it's not taught in the schools and sort of gets forgotten about. For most of us, it's based on what we saw in "The Untouchables," and we don't know anything more about it.

Q: How did Prohibition get neglected even as the Depression, which shared a few years with the alcohol ban, became an unforgettable part of so many people's lives?

A: The Depression had such an enormous impact, while it was possible to live through Prohibition and not feel its impact at all. Sill, there is no period of American history in which the law was broken in such regularity and frequency.

Q: What was the problem with Prohibition?

A: Some earnest people believed it was necessary for the country's moral and human health. But the mistake was that some people thought you could legislate morality. What you can't do is legislate against the human appetite. As long as it's an appetite that doesn't directly injure someone else, people will find a way to satisfy it whether there are laws or not.

Also, they thought that by simply passing their law, they could get what they wanted. Making the law without education, proselytizing, and persuasion was a mistake.

Q: How did Prohibition end up causing so much crime?

A: Before Prohibition, there was organized crime in every city. But it wasn't until Prohibition that [the gangsters] needed to have allies in other cities because they were shipping huge qualities of physical goods to other places: The Chicago mob needed allies in Detroit to get liquor from Canada.

Q: What are the parallels you see to today's world?

A: Everywhere I've spoken, one of the first three questions is about how this compares to the marijuana situation today. The parallels are so clear. We have to recognize that we are creating this similar situation of fostering huge criminal enterprises that find it easy to get around the laws we have. We aren't keeping drugs out of the hands of those who want them and we're enriching violent criminals at the same time.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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