Friday, July 30, 2010

The Noble Experiment in Morality, Hypocrisy, and Crime

I have just finished a book that is tragic and funny, filled with all kinds of characters who have more fatal flaws than in most characters in books. It is a book on politics and corruption and preachers and religion and bigotry and progressive ideas.

It reminded me of the opening announcement in the Broadway show, Chicago:

Welcome. Ladies and Gentlemen, you are about to see a story of
murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery,
and treachery - all those things we all hold near and dear to
our hearts. Thank you.

And it's all true. It was the "noble" experiment that made absolutely no sense but changed the world of the USA forever. It brought together the Ku Klux Klan and those supporting voting rights for women. It made gangsterism famous and profitable and brought moonshine to the dinner table.

It was Prohibition.
Prohibition in the United States, also known as The Noble Experiment, was the period from 1920 to 1933, during which the sale, manufacture, and transportation of alcohol for consumption were banned nationally[1] as mandated in the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Under substantial pressure from the temperance movement, the United States Senate proposed the Eighteenth Amendment on December 18, 1917. Having been approved by 36 states, the 18th Amendment was ratified on January 16, 1919 and effected on January 16, 1920. Some state legislatures had already enacted statewide prohibition prior to the ratification of the 18th Amendment.

The "Volstead Act", the popular name for the National Prohibition Act, passed through Congress over President Woodrow Wilson's veto on October 28, 1919 and established the legal definition of intoxicating liquor.[2] Though the Volstead Act prohibited the sale of alcohol, it did little to enforce the law. By 1925, in New York City alone, there were anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasy clubs.[3]

While Prohibition was successful in reducing the amount of liquor consumed, it tended to destroy society by other means.[4]

Prohibition became increasingly unpopular during the Great Depression, especially in large cities. On March 22, 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt signed into law an amendment to the Volstead Act known as the Cullen-Harrison Act, allowing the manufacture and sale of certain kinds of alcoholic beverages.

On December 5, 1933, the ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment.
It is incredible to read the long history of the idea of prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. It is scary to watch the political maneuverings of a small minority who kept the country hostage and made even the bravest of politicians tremble. It is funny- even for a non-drinker/alcohol counselor- to see how people managed to circumvent the law and, in essence, keep right on drinking.

The book is Last Call by reporter Daniel Okrent. It is a cautionary tale almost 100 years later about how legislating morality can have more negative consequences than one would care to admit. This is especially true when the morality being legislated is a minority opinion and gone about with vengeance. It is a morality tale about hypocrisy run riot when there were "Drys" who were truly dry- non-drinkers. Then there were the "Drys" who supported Prohibition because they had to in order to keep their jobs but were in reality "Wets." And then there were the "Wets who made no bones about it.

It is also the story of racism, nationalism, anti-immigration, anti-taxation, and more things that could be ripped from the headlines. (Although the anti-immigration was aimed at Irish and Italian and Germans and Jews and Catholics.) It is a remarkable story but one I don't think we have truly understood. I know I never did and it wasn't that much before my time. (Well, it ended 15 years before I was born - but I was raised on the TV versions with Elliot Ness and the Untouchables.)

In any case, I found myself laughing at the stupidity of many and the ingenuity of others. I cried at the results of forced morality and got angry at the misuse of the freedom of speech to be mean and hateful. In the end I was afraid that what is in the book can happen again in different ways on either side of the political spectrum.

If you don't believe it just watch some of the shows on Fox or MSNBC. (Yes, I have an equal-opportunity dislike of extremes who don't allow for true dialogue, regardless of political persuasion.) But read the book. It will be enlightening.

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