Missed Messages in the Ken Burns Documentary, "Prohibition"

The Ken Burns documentary, "Prohibition," misses the point

Posted Oct 03, 2011

The NY Times' Neil Genzlinger is impressed with Ken Burns' (and Lynn Novick's) PBS documentary Prohibition because Genzlinger didn't expect it to "resonate in the present" the way it does.  He cites how Prohibition illustrates the "extremism that sabotages itself by refusing to compromise."  This refers to the fact that temperance could have succeeded, were it not that -- in historian Catherine Gilbert Murdoch's words -- “In their extremism, they eliminated all moderate support.”  (The word "temperance" actually historically meant "moderation.")

Are Genzlinger and Burns and Novick referencing America's prohibitionist approach to drugs, and the refusal of a "liberal" administration to even consider examining its drug laws and policies?  Instead, Obama et al. prefer to support drug wars around the globe -- beginning next door in Mexico (where Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry says he'd consider sending American troops) -- while working against harm reduction internationally.  (Note: I just returned from speaking in the UK and Denmark, where political backing for long-established harm reduction policies like methadone, needle exchange, and support for addicts is eroding, due in good part to zero-tolerance pressures emanating from America and a growing AA presence in these countries.)

If that's the case, someone -- Genzlinger or Burns and Novick -- might have actually drawn the parallel between the current American prohibition of drugs to the alcohol prohibition period in American history, when tens of millions of Americans violated the law to procure illegal substances they wanted, while tens of thousands suffered "illness and death caused by the consumption of tainted unregulated" substances, as Genzlinger and the documentary point out.

But that parallel is not actually the most important thing Prohibition (both the experience and the documentary) has to convey across the decades.  That message is two-fold, starting with:

How a substance is experienced and how it affects us depend on the social context in which it is used.  America has a long history of imbibing, a history that went south as alcohol went from being the Puritans' "Good creature of God" (the Puritans weren't Puritanical when it came to drinking) to inspiring the temperance movement.  This transition occurred between 18th century America, where alcohol was a central part of the Colonial cultural fabric, and the 19th, when it came to be considered by some the root of all evil.  As the former, alcohol use was well-controlled and drunken misbehavior virtually nonexistent despite the much greater per capita alcohol consumption during the Colonial period.  As the latter, it was associated with the violence and other antisocial acting out that inspired temperance zealots like Carrie Nation to begin a national campaign to make sure Americans never touched the stuff.

Neither the documentary nor the review can get its head around the concept that alcohol's effects are highly variable depending on social context. (The documentary describes people drinking alcohol at breakfast, lunch, and dinner with no problems, but only imagines problems ensued when they started cultivating grains -- which they've done since prehistory.)  Instead, the documentary Prohibition, like the event, reflects the temperance vision of alcohol -- which illustrates the residual power of this vision for Americans.  According to Genzlinger, "The first installment, A Nation of Drunkards, covers how the temperance movement came to be, painting preindustrial America as awash in alcohol and all the problems that come with it: public drunkenness, domestic abuse, poverty. Americans were drinkers right from the start."  Well that says it all, doesn't it -- "Americans were drinkers right from the start."  I wonder where they came up with that crazy practice!

The lesson that attitudes precede experience in the realm of psychoactive substances is best conveyed by understanding and analyzing how different cultures even today view, use, and experience alcohol differently.  For instance, I spoke in Liverpool last week, where the founder of the harm reduction movement, Patrick O'Hare, who has lived many years in continental Europe, noted, "When I lived in Rome for 12 years, I never once saw a drunken Italian -- not even a tipsy one."  This, from a man raised in Dublin and Liverpool, where weekend (and not only then) public drunkenness, urination, and upchucking are as common as daisies. 

Which leads to the second lesson:

Cultural norms and memes affect at the most fundamental level the experience of psychoactive substances and their integration into society.  It is for this reason that nativist Americans (a label applicable to the current Tea Party) spearheaded Prohibition, while immigrant Europeans (most notably Italians) resisted it.  Once again, neither the documentary nor the review understands the significance of this phenomenon.  As depicted in the documentary and described by Genzlinger, "the divisions explored in The Civil War [note: a prior Burns documentary] - North/South, black/white - are replaced by others just as sharp (and still familiar today): native-born versus immigrant, rural heartland versus the cities." 

Thus, while Italian Americans and other groups familiar and comfortable with the consumption of alcohol were mystified by its banishment, rural regions in the South and the Midwest that already tended to be dry were sure that banning alcohol would remake the nation into a better, more civil place.  These differences are, indeed, "still familiar today" -- although Genzlinger and Burns and Novick don't point out that drinking varies tremendously across contemporary America -- the percentage of drinkers in the urban, ethnic Northeast (like Massachusetts and Rhode Island) is almost double that in largely rural Southern states (like Mississippi and Louisiana).  And many more drinkers binge drink in red-state, bible-belt America (including Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah).  This occurs because viewing alcohol as evil --> high levels of abstinence, alternating with excessive and binge drinking and higher rates of alcoholism among those who do drink.

Intensely negative attitudes and prohibitionist and intolerant policies towards substances go hand and hand with more dangerous use of the substances.  Thus, American young people are led to believe, alcohol and drugs can only be consumed destructively -- even though, in fact, drinkers live longer and healtheir lives than abstainers!  Nineteenth-century Americans among whom anti-alcohol sentiment grew until it led to Prohibition used opiates -- usually tincturated in patent medicines -- as easily as we now swallow aspirin.  Yet (and I know this is hard for Americans today to swallow) just as alcohol was used largely benignly in the 18th century, so too was narcotic addiction largely absent from the 19th.

I guess we'll have to wait for the Burns documentary on nineteenth century narcotics use. Paraphrasing Genzllnger: "The first installment [of my imagined documentary], A Nation of Addicts, covers how the prohibition of drugs came to be, painting nineteenth-century America as awash in opiates and all the problems that come with it: addiction, domestic abuse, poverty. Americans were drug users right from the start."

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