Sunday, November 27, 2011

Prohibition: American Hypocrisy

Last night, I watched a documentary called "Prohibition: 13 Years That Changed America." The film shed light on the fact that the 18th amendment, and its eventual repeal by the 21st amendment, was about a lot more than just booze. The great irony of Prohibition was that, in attempting to "purify" America, it ended up making it irreversibly more corrupt.

Prohibition didn't just spring up out of nowhere. It was the result of decades of intense organization and lobbying by the "Temperance Movement." While notable businessmen and politicians supported the movement, much of the grassroots organization was done by women, specifically the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Interestingly, the Temperance movement provided the impetus for women's involvement in American politics, and contributed to the Women's Suffrage movement. It's no coincidence that women won the right to vote on the heels of Prohibition.

What led to the "Temperance" movement? Protestant Christianity, for one. One irony of American Christianity is that the puritans who first landed in America seeking religious liberty would, a couple hundred years later, seek to impose their religion on others, by force of law.

The "Temperance" movement was also a reaction to increasing immigration to the United States, sparked by the Industrial Revolution. Immigrants who came to America from around the world seeking the "American Dream" brought with them a host of cultural practices that struck the Protestant Establishment as strange and perhaps dangerous. Social drinking was one of these practices. The "Temperance" movement saw itself as a patriotic thing that would "Americanize" and "civilize" the growing immigrant population.

Some of the leaders in the "Temperance" movement were also involved in "Americanization" programs. Henry Ford, for example, forbade his employees from drinking and experimented with a number of "Big Brother-esque" schemes to control the lives of his workers, to make them "good Americans." There is a disturbing scene in the film of a large group of Ford employees in matching white outfits, doing exercises in perfect unison. [Interesting side note: Henry Ford was a vicious and vocal anti-Semite. The Museum of Tolerance in LA has a whole exhibit on Ford's hate-speech against Jews.]

The fear of the immigrant "other" also led in the 1920s to an enormous resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in America, which often allied itself with the "Temperance" movement. In my hometown of Fullerton, the Klan was tied to Prohibition. Former City Attorney Albert Launer recalls: “There were two groups in the Klan as I now recall it. One of them was a church group, a school group. They were tied in with the activities around what now represents Plummer Auditorium [Superintendent Louis Plummer was a member of the Klan] and its directives toward good morals and good culture. This group was represented by the WCTU [Women’s Christian Temperance Union] results [Prohibition]. They felt that you must preserve and protect these youngsters. They opposed dancing, and were against exposure of any kind."

Thus, behind Prohibition were hints of racial superiority, and fear of the immigrant "other."

Finally, after lots of political activity, the 18th Amendment was passed, and it became illegal to transport or sell liquor. Interestingly, it was not illegal to drink liquor. So if you could get it, you could legally drink it.

Who supplied the liquor during Prohibition? Gangsters, rum-runners, and an increasingly organized Mob. To protect themselves, the Mob bribed police, federal agents, judges, and politicians, all the way up to president Warren G. Harding's cabinet members. This was the unforeseen result of Prohibition. It forged alliances between the powerful Mob and the government, alliances that were not necessarily broken by the repeal of Prohibition. Politicians learned how to enrich themselves by making shady back room deals with powerful forces like the Mob and Corporate bosses. And so, you had federal agents, making only $2000 a year legally, driving luxury cars and living like kings.

This, then, was the real legacy of Prohibition. Not moral purity, but corruption. American history is full of ironies.


Political cartoon from the Prohibition Era, showing the escalation of political corruption during this Era. Governemnt agents, police, even the clergy, turn their backs, but expect payment. The Prohibition Era hi-lighted American hypocrisy.

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