“The average American says ‘who the hell are you to tell me how to live?’ If we become a country where we all say ‘please tell me how to live’ we’re doomed.”
That’s writer Pete Hamill speaking the last words for Ken Burns’ series “Prohibition.” The first sentence summarizes the end result of how the nation came to feel about the 18th amendment. The last seems to describe the state we’re in now.
In watching “Prohibition” I was struck by how current the issue is. Yes, everyone can enjoy alcohol now – save for a few quirky lingering laws like no alcohol sales before noon; but the real issue was and is personal freedom, not booze. In that respect, the documentary takes us out of the early 20th century and into our own.
In the first segment, “A Nation of Drunkards,” Burns describes the rise of figureheads like Carrie Nation and the temperance movement. They are surprisingly reminiscent of today’s green movement. The prohibition evangelists felt that getting rid of alcohol would solve the world’s problems. They had the fervor visible in today’s green movement. You only have to substitute oil or carbon emissions for alcohol and you get the picture.
While Al Gore didn’t use a hatchet to destroy his foe like Carrie Nation, he cultivates the same kind of fear of a world out of control that she did. His crusade against global warming has the same zeal she had. There is the sense that if we could just get rid of carbon emissions, as the temperance movement felt about alcohol, the world would be a wonderful place and all our problems would be solved. Even President Obama got on the band wagon. As a candidate, he said that his implementation of green laws would be remembered as “the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” in a 2008 campaign speech in St. Paul.
Like the environmentalist extremists, the temperance movement was begun by progressives. They were a small group, but vocal. They were for taxes and helped along the 16th amendment, which allowed the federal government to tax incomes. They learned, as liberal groups do today, to join with the politicians and found success through political intimidation and bribery. Politicians found and find for their part that joining with them could grow their personal power and pocketbook.
The temperance movement wasn’t afraid to march and be violent either. Reminds me of the ELF group – earth liberation front – and their propensity to attack corporate entities, burn down and destroy property. Figuratively they have done it in Congress with their attack on the incandescent light bulb. Or it’s a spotted owl or endangered species that is used to stop business. During Prohibition they saw it end jobs for barrel makers, grain growers, shippers and waiters. Now, we hand over light bulb manufacturing and other jobs to China. We stop oil drilling jobs along the coasts and stifle our own energy industry.
Even with the Great Depression, politicians wouldn’t leave their ideology for jobs. Sound like something that’s happening now?
But the Prohibition mindset doesn’t just pertain to environmental concerns. We see it popping up with the moralistic attack on food. We are told more and more what we can and cannot eat. Mayor Michael Bloomberg is doing it in New York with his laws against too much salt. Michelle Obama is doing it with her constant campaign against fat. These people, like the temperance movement, want to curtail our behavior for us. They succeed by tying it into the expense of medical care. We must hand over the care of our own health to Obamacare. Choice and personal responsibility must be taken away.
In the Prohibition saga, it was women who finally put the death blow on the 18th amendment. Pauline Sabin, a social maven and Republican activist, couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of it anymore and started a successful movement against it. With health care, women like Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann seem to be taking a lead in the fight.
“Prohibition” is a good reminder that the fight for freedom is never truly over. Citizens will constantly have to fight to retain it. But it is worth the fight.