Sunday, November 18, 2012

Legislating against intoxicants; snotty history

In the wake of an election in which voters in two states sought to legalize marijuana, it's just plain weird to find the Washington Monthly promoting a muddled article warning that monopolistic beer breweries are conspiring to make drunks of us all and urging regulated inefficiency. I'm sure that Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors will jack up prices and reduce variety to nothing but tasteless warm piss if they can get away with it, but this article didn't help me form a convincing picture of how that might happen. And it's hard in the current libertarian enthusiasm for intoxicants to imagine regulation reducing alcohol consumption. That's just not where we are at these days. If anything, maybe we are finally getting around to looking for a better metaphor for the problems of substance abuse than the drug "war" and might be ready to stop creating casualties.
Daniel Okrent's Last Call: the Rise and Fall of Prohibition tells the story of a previous round of wrestling with the problems caused by intoxicants that led to the only amendment to the U.S. constitution ever enacted (1920) -- and then quickly repealed (1933). The story is fascinating and Okrent tells it with authority. Okrent used to be the New York Times' "public editor" during the era when the paper was struggling with its responsibility for allowing itself to be used as a conduit for Bush administration war propaganda. He's better at writing popular history than he seemed at dealing with murderous disinformation that exploited "journalistic" conventions.

But though I enjoyed the amusing story of a bygone era, I found this a troubling book. The cause of temperance -- outlawing booze -- was a classic social movement. An ungainly coalition of feminists, fundamentalists and nativists strove to use the political system to rid the country of what they thought -- for divergent reasons -- was a monstrous evil. This led to bizarre assemblages of strange bedfellows, such as the Ku Klux Klan supporting women's suffrage: women were expected to vote to outlaw drink which would strike at Jews, Catholics and other foreigners who were stealing the country from its rightful white male founders. Besides, all good Southerners "knew" that Black men would laze around drunk on the streets leering at white women if white manhood didn't stop them. (Some evil memes have great staying power.) On the other hand, the corporate barons who eventually funded the cause of repeal were led by Pierre Du Pont who wanted to legalize liquor so as to tax it heavily; such an excise tax would enable his class to do away with the new income and inheritance taxes that were cutting into his profits from a chemical empire built on weapons sales to the belligerents in World War I.

As I was carried along by Okrent's story, I realized he had somehow written a long account in which he encountered NO attractive people. Everyone on either side of the liquor debate comes across as ignorant, and/or bigoted, and/or self-serving. The story of Prohibition in his telling is all villains and no heroes. The kindest treatment that Okrent gives to any of them is to portray them as helpless obsessives.

The result is a book whose essential message is that vast social movements that change the country are the terrain of fools and/or charlatans. Now Prohibition certainly proved a terrible mistake. But is that all there is? I don't believe it; some of those people on one or the other side of liquor restriction must have had better motives that those.

Okrent comes off as an historian all too true to his background as a Very Serious Person calling balls and strikes at the Very Serious Newspaper of Record -- above and superior to the fray of movement politics. This is unattractive and, for me, undermined an interesting account of how citizens of this country worked out their wishes in a particular arena of passion and prejudice. These ebbs and flows are very much what life in a democracy is all about. Democrats (small "d") don't turn up their noses at them.


Damon said...

I absolutely loved that book.

janinsanfran said...

Damon -- interesting. I was drawn into the book. And much of it felt close to me as I was raised by a mother who learned as an adolescent to carry her own flask so as not to risk getting poisonous booze in a dive. She also recalled cheering the bootleggers as they outran the Feds crossing the Niagara River from Canada.

But there was a tone of superiority to popular passions to this history that rubbed me the wrong way.

Damon said...

Isn't that same tone of superiority alive and well in the modern Republican part? It's OK to drink, apparently, but weed, sex outside of very narrow(-minded) boundaries, birth control, abortion, gay marriage, etc., are all still places where people mis-using the words of their "god" attempt to keep the uneducated masses from defiling themselves. It's the same thing. We know what's best for you, and almost always, it involves prohibiting something enjoyable "in the name of the Lord". Blah, blah, blah. Save me from the people who want to save me.

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