Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition

by Daniel Okrent - 4 stars

I'd had this on my shelves for a while, but recent viewing of Boardwalk Empire whet my appetite for it. It turned out to be a truly comprehensive look at Prohibition that leaves virtually no aspect of life under that ridiculous law untouched, and with particular emphasis on the personalities and political manoeuvres that got it passed in the first place (and if you're anything like me you'll soon find yourself reading this while clutching a large glass of red wine in your clearly degenerate mitts, as all that talk about being 'dry' soon worked up a powerful thirst in me.)

Initially backed by the sorts of religious types who not only don't want to do something but don't want anyone else to do it either (ruddy killjoys) and then joined by some odd bedfellows for various reasons of their own, this book showed in a clear and detailed way how deft political machinations ensured that a law only really wanted by a minority was not only passed but stayed in place for far longer than it should have. 
There's definitely a lesson to be learned here, as we laugh at some of the fringe groups that would like to drag us back to the stone-age (whether it be culturally, sexually, educationally or in any other way, like the bigots in groups like the BNP, those lovely pro-lifers or the creationists who seem to have a scary amount of political clout compared to the rest of us less lunatic folk) when we should actually be taking them very seriously.

Ladies and the Klan, ruining drinking for everybody

A lot of the arguments for Prohibition seemed to be rooted in bigotry and xenophobia (because what else are black people to do now that they're not the slaves of white men but get drunk and rape white women? And the Germans and Jews making wonderful amounts of money from alcohol must be stopped) with people seemingly unaware of their own hypocrisy - I lost count of the amount of people who were spouting off about immigrants and how 'the scum of the old world' must be prevented from coming to America and becoming naturalized. Did these people never wonder how they had come to be American in the first place? Sure, they may have been born there but it's a very safe bet that at some point in their family history someone had to have got on a boat and sailed there as, after all, we're not dealing with the descendants of Sitting Bull and Geronimo here.

From such lovely beginnings it's small wonder that when the law was passed and needed to be enforced efforts were at best incompetent and underfunded and at worst venal and corrupt. Instead of changing drinking habits for the better it simply turned a huge chunk of the normally otherwise law-abiding population into criminals and handed the bigger criminals and their organisations astounding fortunes which could be used in no small part to bribe enforcement officers, politicians and the like to keep them out of jail and ensure that the only people really affected by the increasingly draconian sentencing guidelines were the poor and unpowerful (leading to a widowed mother of ten getting a life sentence for selling two quarts of gin in one particularly attention-grabbing case). 

Hands up if you're a criminal now!

If this all sounds depressingly familiar that'll be due to politicians and moral crusaders failing to learn any lessons from this period in history (that you can't legislate against human appetites, unless you want that law to be broken) and treating drug users in the same way. You can bet your life that the majority of people currently locked up for drug offences are small-fry, with the big boys still sitting pretty and counting their stacks of money as it's far easier for the fuzz that way - inflating their arrest stats and giving the appearance of effectiveness in the war on drugs.

That said, there were some intriguing developments and innovations thanks to Prohibition - the introduction of mixers (to disguise the rank flavour of crappy counterfeit booze) and the birth of what we now take for granted on cruise ships (who only started offering entertainment and facilities as a way to attract tourists back to the American ships that weren't allowed to carry alcohol) were just a few of the rather interesting things that came about, along with 
the fact that for the first time women were out drinking with men rather than waiting at home and so, really, Prohibition is also to blame for this:

That's probably more than enough of my ranting for now, but if you're at all interested in Prohibition then you couldn't go far wrong with this as it's packed with information and no small amount of personality too - like me, Okrent clearly couldn't help but let us know his own opinion at frequent, sarcastic intervals, which makes the book all the better as far as I'm concerned.

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