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TV Weekend: The Bootleg Empire of Ken Burns’ Prohibition

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There may be nothing more gratifying and unifying for people than coming together in disdain for a past idea, now universally agreed on to be stupid. One of the greatest of these in American history is alcohol prohibition, not merely the impetus for the criminal events of Boardwalk Empire, but the case study for the idea that the best way to encourage a personal vice is to forbid it. So for fans of Boardwalk (though its viewership was down from its season 1 premiere) or students of American history, Ken Burns’ Prohibition, airing three nights on PBS starting Sunday, provides a detailed, engaging postmortem of a very, very bad idea.

One problem I’ve sometimes had with Burns’ documentaries in the past, as I’ve written before, is that they represent a kind of pledge-drive-safe advocacy: they make impassioned arguments for things the audience already believes. (Slavery was awful, war is hell, baseball represents America.) This is the tradeoff, I guess, for the big platform that PBS provides him. And I’m not sure that three nights of Prohibition would be of that much use if all it did was let us shake our heads for about six hours at America’s 14 years of dry madness.

That’s why, from my barstool, the best night of Prohibition–if you watch only one–is the first, on Sunday, which looks at how Prohibition became law, and the reasons that most American states were motivated to sign on to what, in retrospect, looks like an impossible attempt at social engineering. It wasn’t that Americans of the time were simply moralistic prigs and stupider than we are. As Prohibition–based on a book by longtime TIME editor Daniel Okrent–lays out, there were strong motives behind a very bad constitutional amendment.

Namely: America was drunk off its ass. And it could be a very, very mean drunk. This situation was different from drinking culture as we think of it today, and Prohibition does an engaging job giving it historical context. When the U.S. was founded, regular drinking was a way of life; not just drinking in the evenings for entertainment, but throughout the day–for thirst, for sustenance, as a way of conserving harvests like apples into cider. The practice goes back centuries; in the pre-industrial world, beer or cider might simply be a safer, more reliable option than water.

But the drink of those times was different from today; the founding fathers’ beer would have had a far lower alcohol content than what you’d get in a microbrew today. This changed, though, with the development of industrial technology and the growth of America. Suddenly, the country was turning out corn, grain–the raw stuff of hard liquor–and had the means to distill a lot of it en masse. Average Americans now had easy access to far harder booze–by many multiple of alcohol content–than they did in more agrarian times. Americans of the mid-19th century drank three times as much alcohol as we do today.

As Prohibition tells it, the country spent much of the 19th century plastered–and paid for it in money, lost jobs and domestic violence. (One of the catchphrases of the early Prohibition movement, related to the early women’s rights movement, was “the degradation of Saturday night,” that is, men going out, spending their paychecks on hard liquor, and coming home to beat their kids and brutally rape their wives.)

A confluence of factors–the Progressive movement, religious awakenings–served to make banning alcohol a realistic possibility and then a reality. And yes, it turned out to be as awful and fruitless an effort as you’d think, as the following two nights spell out in interesting detail. (Though the material is much closer to the story that Boardwalk tells and the themes you’d expect from a prohibition film–the rise of crime, the spread of speakeasies, the way banning something makes people want it more.)

But Prohibition goes on to say that trying to make America dry was also a case of zealous overreach, which you could apply to any number of political movements and well-intentioned programs. The supporters of prohibition turned the ban into something much more draconian than many of the politicians who voted for it expected. Many “supporters” of prohibition assumed that beer and light-alcohol wine would still be legal, for instance. But the Volstead Act put the alcohol threshold so low, Okrent notes, as to technically criminalize sauerkraut.

The result was a law too sweeping to practically enforce and too rigid for most Americans to respect. Without respect, the law could not take hold, and it had the unintended consequence of not just giving rise to modern organized crime, but encouraging the hedonism of the Jazz Age. Dry America overnight became the world’s largest importer of cocktail shakers. As historian Catherine Gilbert Murdock argues in the film, prohibition backers might have built more support if they got rid of the more ridiculous parts of the Volstead Act. Instead, they stuck by it in their extremism, losing any moderate support. “That’s an important political lesson,” she says. “You’ve gotta bend a little.”

There, of course, is a lesson you could easily apply today, though Burns does not push the viewer to apply it to any one faction in particular. In an interview with Burns on Current, Keith Olbermann put a more specific point on it–comparing anti-alcohol zealots with today’s conservatives–though Burns notes that prohibition was an alliance of conservative moralists and progessive advocates of the time alike:

In any case, it’s a worthy, well, distillation of the documentary’s theme: if there’s one thing more dangerous than getting drunk on whiskey, it’s getting drunk on righteousness.

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