Pubdate: Tue, 26 Oct 1999
Source: Bangor Daily News (ME)
Copyright: 1999, Bangor Daily News Inc.
Author: John Buell
Note: John Buell is a political economist who lives in Southwest Harbor.


We Americans celebrate a rich history. Martin Luther King and Abraham
Lincoln are honored with special days. But some signal events seem to be
greeted with embarrassed silence.

The year 1999 marks the 80th anniversary of Prohibition. With both Maine
and the nation today badly divided over various forms of marijuana
regulation, Prohibition merits far more attention than it receives in most
history texts. More than just a transient phenomenon, Prohibition was the
archetype of a politics of personal reform that has been the hallmark of
our culture. In the colonial era, upper middle-class citizens attempted to
limit drinking to those they considered ``respected and responsible
citizens.'' That category carried with it both ethnic and class
connotations. Drunkards were condemned to jail or required to wear the
scarlet D. Yet even in an era when such draconian punishment was seldom
challenged and personal privacy often violated, overall success rates seem
to have been minimal. One historian has labeled late 18th and early 19th
century America ``the alcoholic republic.''

By the end of the 19th century, two great preoccupations defined the
nation's leadership -- industrial growth and sobriety. The late 19th and
early 20th century temperance movement fused these concerns. The immigrants
who migrated to the industrial East and Midwest also brought with them a
different work ethic. Work was important to Italian and Polish cigar
makers, potters and coopers, but was to be kept within the bounds of
holidays, family time and the pleasures of social drinking.

The social drinking of immigrant Americans soon became a target of an
unlikely coalition of rural Protestants, industrialists, and many
Progressive era leaders. Rural Americans felt both threatened and bypassed
by rapid industrial growth, and the lifestyle of immigrants came to
symbolize those threats. Business leaders were interested in industrial
efficiency and progressives sought labor ``peace.'' Alcohol consumption
became a favorite theme for all. Temperance campaigns portrayed risk not
only to the individuals involved but to the whole social order.
Foreignness, laziness, disease were all seen as one piece and crystallized
in demon rum. The loss of health and lives to slums, poverty wages and
workplace exhaustion were seldom addressed. Nor did the role of poverty and
work life in intensifying patterns of alcohol escape receive any attention.

World War I, with its extraordinary demands on the whole population,
converted a social movement into a constitutional crisis. As University of
California, San Diego, historian Michael Parrish puts it, Prohibition in
practice symbolized ``the political and cultural victory of small towns
over big cities, of evangelical and pietistic Protestants over Roman
Catholics, Lutherans and Jews; of old stock Anglo-Saxons over newer
immigrants, and finally, of rich over poor.''

As in all war, those with other values and lifestyles are the enemy, and
our most basic civil liberties become expendable. Federal agents broke into
homes, offices and garages without search warrants. In 1925, the Supreme
Court ruled that police did not need a warrant to search a car if they had
probable cause to believe the vehicle contained alcohol.

Many urban areas fought back. The mayors of Chicago and New York were
openly ``wet.'' As Parrish remarks, perhaps the greatest irony lay in the
wealth Prohibition brought to some of those whose lives and values were
attacked. A $2 billion industry ``was delivered into the hands of an
underworld dominated by second generation Italians, Jews, and Irish, who
faced far less discrimination in this line of work than in the more
reputable middle class professions.''

This earlier episode of our continuing cultural wars raises important
questions. Some argue that the war succeeded because the drinking habits of
Americans changed permanently after Prohibition. But for many, beer and
wine, not without their problems, replaced hard liquor. Parrish points out
that greater affluence and changing status expectations seem to have played
more of a role in the transformation.

The costs of this war were enormous and some remain with us today. Many
working men continued to drink, but often suffered from lower quality and
more dangerous concoctions. The mob gained a firm foundation in American
life, violence became endemic, and civil liberties were severely damaged.

Anyone would be hard put to deny that abuse of alcohol remains not only a
grave problem but a far more serious one for us than in much of Western
Europe. Worse still, drugs of one sort or another remain both a prevalent
fact of American life and a centerpiece in our politics.

Perhaps it is time to reconsider the ways we have often make legitimate
concerns about public health into wars against those who don't meet our
everyday expectations or are simply different from us. The first casualty
of war is measured response, careful attention to the kind and degree of
threat and responsiveness to individual circumstances. We forget these
lessons at our peril.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake