Burns' 'Prohibition' looks at the fruits of forbidding alcohol


Whether it's banning certain light bulbs or transfats or salt or smoking or plastic grocery bags, someone decides that a legal substance or activity is not good for people or society and should be severely limited or banned.

Spearheading each of these efforts is a desire to improve health or the environment, and the mechanisms to enforce the will of the backers are protest, social pressure and ultimately, the force of law.

But there are other forms of law, including Newton's Third Law, which states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Often, a desire to bring the hammer down turns instead into a game of whack-a-mole.

Airing Sunday through Tuesday, Oct. 2-4, on PBS (check local listings), "Prohibition," from acclaimed filmmakers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick -- who most recently teamed up for "'The War" -- looks at the forces that brought about the National Prohibition Act, popularly known as the Volstead Act.

That made possible the 18th Amendment, banning the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol. It stayed in place from 1920 until it was repealed in December 1933.

Intended to curb the evils of excessive alcohol consumption -- from domestic abuse to poverty to crime -- it also spawned lawbreaking large and small, from bathtub gin to organized crime.

Burns believes there are many lessons in this story for today.

"You begin to see," he says, "that human nature never changes. History, therefore, becomes a very effective way to have a good perspective on the events of today."We talk about civil discourse and how it's broken down, the lack of compromise. Well, Prohibition is a lack of compromise, civil discourse breaking down, and people becoming intransigent and inflexible.

"By looking at the unintended consequences of Prohibition, it's possible to actually look at our present day and perhaps see the best way out of the problems."

According to Novick, the support of and opposition to Prohibition represent competing strains of American thought.

"There are these twin impulses in American society," she says, "that we want our individual freedom, and we don't want the government to tell us what to do. The other impulse is that we have this idealized vision of ourselves, that we should be something special, that we're capable of great things, and the impulse to have Prohibition was that.

"Then you get to the sticky bit. It's naive and idealistic to think that people will change or that they should, or that it's up to the government to tell them. But there is that very strong sense of, we could be better, that we're destined for something special.

"There was a sense in the 19th century that alcohol and slavery were the original sins of America, and we couldn't fulfill our destiny as a country until we got rid of both of them."

But there is another story in "Prohibition," and that is the story of women: the women of the Progressive Era who protested in front of saloons, the women of the Christian Temperance Union who fought for the law, the Jazz Age flappers who flouted it, the woman -- U.S. Assistant Attorney General Mabel Walker Willebrandt -- who prosecuted it, and the woman -- New York socialite Pauline Sabin -- who led the charge to tear it down.

And then there's Carry Nation, the fiery temperance advocate who took her hatchet to more than one bar and earned a reputation as a merciless foe of strong drink.Burns intended to make Nation more than just a stereotype.

"She had come down to me," he says, "as just a one-dimensional, demented person. I, at least, felt we have given her at least an origin and a cause, that she had come from a severely dysfunctional and broken family.

"She herself had two horrific marriages. She was effective for a time. Every movement needs that rabble-rouser, seeming crazy to some people, to some messianic, but at least calling attention to the problem. She certainly did that."

Alcohol caused -- and causes -- terrible social problems, but it has also been part of human society for millennia.

"There were many, many problems with Prohibition," says Novick, "but one was a fundamental misreading of the place of alcohol and also the fact that alcohol, inherently, is not bad for everyone."

As the 19th turned into the 20th century, the nation was changing from rural to urban, and immigrants were flooding in, altering the country's ethnic and religious makeup. The attempt to drive alcohol out of existence flew in the face of an America charging into the future.

"It coincided with this great liberation of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties economically," Burns says. "The only thing that's going backwards is Prohibition. Everything else is going forwards; half the country becomes lawbreakers. It is a descent into hell paved entirely with good intentions."

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