Thursday, October 13, 2011

Prohibition (Florentine Films/PBS, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I spent a large chunk of this morning watching the first episode of Ken Burns’ new series on Prohibition, a short — at least by his standards, just six hours — mini-series that actually traced the roots of the Prohibitionist movement to the 1830’s and the reform movements that were sweeping the country then, and made clear that though prohibition generally (in lower-case referring not only to the “experiment noble in purpose” of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act but the still ongoing, and equally ineffective and counterproductive, “war on drugs”) is considered a Right-wing cause today, the roots of Prohibition were actually progressive. The early abolitionists, including minister Henry Ward Beecher and Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe (whose father, Reverend Lyman Beecher, had delivered the anti-alcohol sermons that kicked off the movement in the 1830’s), were also Prohibitionists (Beecher père, who wasn’t an abolitionist, co-founded the American Temperance Society) and regarded opposition to alcohol as part of the same movement towards moral uplift and reform as opposing slavery and supporting women’s rights. Indeed, as this show chronicles, the entire political awakening of women in the U.S. — women’s discovery that they could be activists in their own right and didn’t have to live their entire lives in subservience first to their fathers and then their husbands — was bound up with the rise of Prohibition.

The first-wave feminists were ardent Prohibitionists because they saw alcohol as the direct cause of female poverty and domestic violence — they saw alcohol as evil because all too many men cashed their week’s paycheck on a Saturday afternoon and headed for the saloon and drank it up (indeed, in an era in which banking services were available only to the most affluent, the saloon often cashed the worker’s paycheck), coming home drunk and often verbally or even physically lashed out at their wives, who had to figure out how to keep themselves and their children going on no money for the next week — and the Prohibition and women’s suffrage movements were so closely associated (the founding mothers of American feminism, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, were also ardent Prohibitionists) that one of the reasons it took so damned long for women to get the vote in the U.S. was the opposition of the major brewers and distillers, who realized that votes for women would mean far more votes for Prohibition. One of the most interesting phenomena in this show was the “Washingtonian Societies,” founded in 1840 by what would now be called recovering alcoholics; they held meeting at which people who’d had drinking problems met and recounted their experiences to each other — essentially the first iteration of Alcoholics Anonymous, 95 years before today’s AA was founded by Bill Wilson in 1935 (two years after Prohibition was repealed). At the same time there was a parallel anti-drinking movement, the Anti-Saloon League, which was run by men and was essentially the prototype of the single-issue lobbies of today; the architect of their strategy was Wayne Wheeler, their legislative director, who perfected the now-common approach of mobilizing people to vote for or against politicians based solely on their stand on the issue his group was pushing. Needless to say, the program also profiled Carrie Nation, whose direct attacks on saloons with hatchets make her come off in the show as the strategic and tactical ancestor of ACT UP, with a quite familiar-seeming obsession with pushing what she considered a mass health issue by any means necessary.

The political alignments of Prohibition look familiar in some ways and wildly different from those of today in others: as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, including some Zenger’s editorials, in the 1890’s and the 1930’s the Left was actually associated with what would now be called social conservatism — the 1890’s and 1930’s were times of mass Left movements in the U.S. and also times in which the Left united economic progressivism and social conservatism, linking the moral excesses of the 1880’s and the 1920’s with the exploitation of working-class and poor people and calling for a more conservative, more Puritan personal morality, a combination that has been inconceivable since the 1960’s reshuffled the political deck and instead linked progressive economic policies with personal (especially sexual) liberation. A figure like William Jennings Bryan — who, as this show chronicles, originally was for temperance rather than Prohibition (i.e., allowing alcohol to be sold but not using it personally and organizing to encourage people to abstain) but soon realized that he could rebuild his political reputation after three failed Presidential candidacies by putting himself at the head of Prohibition (and later, after his side won that one, anti-evolution) — an economic and public-policy liberal verging on radical and an intense religious and social conservative — would be virtually unimaginable today. Prohibition the movie is a fascinating film on many levels, including showcasing how a determined minority with sufficient organization and discipline can reshape American society through both electoral activism and direct action (the Prohibitionists staged the first March on Washington, an event later copied by the African-American civil rights movement, the anti-Viet Nam War movement, the Queer movement and many others), and it’s also at least something of a retreat from Ken Burns’ previous filmmaking strategy — there are fewer titles and fewer cutesie-poo sequences of unseen voices reading published quotes or letters from the participants — though there’s one annoying cliché he didn’t duck: the use of 1920’s jazz as the basis for his soundtrack (even, rather anachronistically, before his story actually reaches the 1920’s).

At one point we hear Wynton Marsalis (who, because of his anointing as the authority on jazz by Burns and the people running Lincoln Center, has become the most powerful figure in jazz history in terms of defining what is and isn’t considered jazz, and who’s used that power to impose a racialist view of jazz history in which African-Americans are considered not the primary but the only true creators of jazz and all sorts of “fusion” between jazz and contemporary pop are ruled illegitimate — this is a man who actually disowned his own brother Branford for doing an album and tour with Sting!) and a pianist do a pretty good recreation of the 1924 recording of “King Porter Stomp” by King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, and indeed so much of Morton’s music is heard (possibly from his piano rolls, more likely from a modern pianist copying his style) he practically deserves credit for scoring the film. There’s also the almost unbearable irony of Paul Whiteman’s 1928 recording of “Sugar” being used as underscoring and heard (unlike most of the recordings sampled in Burns’ Jazz series) start-to-finish — including the great solo playing by Bix Beiderbecke, who really did drink himself to death on illegal booze … — 10/4/11


Charles and I had the chance to screen the second episode of Prohibition, the documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick and the episode that first got us into the 1920’s, when Prohibition actually went into effect — and, given that this was an era of fiscally and socially conservative Republican Presidencies and Congresses, the level of funding necessary for any serious enforcement efforts was far from forthcoming; Fiorello La Guardia, a progressive Congressmember from New York City at the time, estimated that in order to enforce Prohibition in New York you would need 250,000 police officers — “and 250,000 other men to watch the police” — and instead only 200 agents were assigned for the entire state (not just the city but also the Long Island coastline and the border with Canada through which legal liquor could relatively easily be smuggled). This show has caused enough consternation among the modern-day prohibitionists in the “War on Drugs” that a former official in Obama’s drug policy office published a Los Angeles Times op-ed trying to blow apart the comparison modern day legalization advocates are making between the failure of alcohol prohibition and the ongoing failure of drug prohibition — but the parallels are so inescapable even the usual hysterical “war on drugs” rhetoric can’t mask them, especially the power criminal organizations acquired from the income from the illicit trade and their ability to use their money to bribe law enforcement and be let alone, often to settle their differences on the streets in drive-by shootings and kill innocent people.

This episode was less interesting than the first one in that it focused less on the politics of Prohibition and more on the personalities involved, though some of the personalities were absolutely fascinating. The story of George Remus, an attorney turned bootlegger and liquor czar, would have made a great 1940’s film noir — one could readily imagine Edward G. Robinson playing him and Barbara Stanwyck playing his wife. Remus represented a husband accused of killing his wife and tried — and failed — to get him off by pleading temporary insanity, and when he realized he could make a lot more money (to please the high-maintenance trophy wife he’d just married after dumping his first one) running an illegal liquor business than being a criminal defense attorney, he searched the Volstead Act (the implementation law for Prohibition) for loopholes and found a big one: whiskey already distilled at the time Prohibition went into effect was grandfathered in and stored in government-bonded warehouses. The key to getting it out again was having a government permit to withdraw it, which involved swearing an affidavit that it would only be used for medicinal purposes (the patent-medicine lobby had been strong enough to get an exception into the Volstead Act that alcohol sold for purely medicinal purposes was still legal) — and by getting an assistant to Harry Daugherty, President Warren G. Harding’s (corrupt) Attorney General, on his payroll, Remus got all the permits he wanted, and then had “gangs” on his payroll “hijack” the shipments of “medicinal” whiskey and divert them to distributors. Eventually he got caught when his man in Daugherty’s office committed suicide and the Prohibition Bureau launched an enforcement effort — and Remus’s trophy wife fell in love with the male Prohibition agent involved in the case, and the two of them looted Remus’s entire fortune so when he returned from his four-year prison sentence, he was penniless. So he waylaid his wife and stepdaughter while they were driving one day, forced their car off the road, killed his wife and got off on the same “temporary insanity” defense he had once unsuccessfully used on a client.

Oddly, the most heroic characters in this story keep turning up on the Prohibition side — in episode one Carrie Nation came off as a spiritual ancestor of ACT UP, heroically using direct action and crimes against property to advance what she saw as the cause of public health; and in this episode Mabel Walker Willebrandt, another heroic woman, was appointed by President Harding as assistant attorney general and put in charge of Prohibition enforcement, a duty she took ultra-seriously (she even insisted on conducting part of George Remus’s prosecution herself!) — which led to one writer of the time commenting that Prohibition was a big joke but someone had forgot to let Ms. Willebrandt in on it. The show also told the story of Roy Olmstead, the “good bootlegger” of Seattle, who made it a point of pride never to palm off adulterated or potentially toxic goods on his customers (of course, living in a state easily accessible from Canada by both land and sea, he didn’t have to!) and who was finally caught by wiretaps on his phone (“whispering wires,” the press of the time called them), and his conviction was upheld by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court even though the calls were not actually recorded (the recording technology of 1924 would probably not have been able to record them) and the only documents offered were stenographic transcripts of the calls made “live” by the private detective who was running the taps.

The film mentioned the 1924 Democratic National Convention and the epic 103-ballot battle between “dry” candidate William Gibbs McAdoo and “wet” Al Smith — who as governor of New York had signed a law repealing the state’s tough Prohibition statute and attracted the ire of rural America because he was everything they hated: a Catholic, a “wet,” a progressive and the man behind the unsuccessful attempt (it failed by just one vote!) to get the Democratic convention to condemn the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. It also did a passing mention of the famous Prohibition agent Izzy Einstein (he and his partner were the subject of a quite entertaining TV-movie in the 1970’s starring Jackie Gleason — and the photo of the real Einstein included here suggested that Gleason was excellent casting for the role) in which he kept track of how long it would take between the time he arrived in a new city and the time he would be offered his first drink; not surprisingly, the quickest was New Orleans, when within 35 seconds of his arrival the cab driver taking him into town from the train station pulled out a flask from under his car seat and offered him some. One can readily see why the neo-prohibitionists don’t like this program; though it doesn’t really go out of its way to hammer home the message, the unmistakable lesson is that you can’t keep people from doing something that’s bad for them just by making it illegal — and if you try, all you will do (as real-life Prohibition agent turned repeal advocate Col. Ira Reeves wrote in his 1931 book Ol’ Rum River) is raise the substance’s price and lower its quality, along with fostering a general disrespect for the law and making some very nasty criminals insanely rich. — 10/11/11


Charles and I finally got together and watched the third and final episode of the Ken Burns-Lynn Novick film Prohibition, “A Nation of Hypocrites,” which (unlike the first two) carried a may-not-be-suitable-for-children disclaimer based on “scenes of violence” — the film included reproductions of the still photos taken at the scenes of the gangland massacres in Chicago in the late 1920’s and they were pretty horrific (the gangster movies of the time made them look decidedly more clinical and less gory than they were for real). The Prohibition series has today’s prohibitionists — the ones who insist that the U.S. must maintain a life-and-death commitment to the “war on drugs” based on the same stupid idea that motivated the prohibition of alcohol, namely that the best way to control a social vice is simply to make it illegal (we have ample evidence by now from both anti-alcohol and anti-drug prohibition that that’s the worst thing you can do!), which the neo-prohibitionists take seriously enough that one of them, Kevin A. Sabet — former senior policy advisor to President Obama’s “drug czar” — published an op-ed in the October 6 Los Angeles Times that Prohibition wasn’t such a bad thing after all (“Alcohol use plummeted among the general population. Cirrhosis of the liver fell by 66 percent among men. Arrest for public drunkenness declined by half. Yes, organized crime was emboldened, but the mob was already powerful before Prohibition” — no, it wasn’t; before Prohibition the Mafia, to the extent it existed in the U.S. at all, was basically an irritant that did shakedown rackets among fellow Italian-Americans and was a few disorganized gangs in major cities with large populations of Italian immigrants; it wasn’t a national force until illegal booze and the money to be made from it made it one — “and it continued to be long after,” because it used the national infrastructure it had built to take advantage of Prohibition to organize large-scale rackets in gambling, prostitution and drugs, just as the U.S. government turned the infrastructure it had built up to enforce Prohibition to enforcing the laws against marijuana enacted in the 1930’s) and that while “Americans have concluded that the right to drink outweighs public health and safety consequences … there are key differences between [Prohibition] and modern-day drug enforcement that render a comparison almost useless for serious policy analysis.”

Bullshit: though Burns and Novick are too good as filmmakers (and also too cognizant that they are reliant not only on the federal government but also on private corporations like the Bank of America for the money to get their shows on the air) to hammer home the alcohol Prohibition/drug prohibition parallels with propagandistic obviousness, the similarities are glaring and in-your-face to anyone whose knowledge of the real-world effects of both the anti-alcohol and anti-drug laws goes beyond the pro-Prohibition propaganda. Both alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition fueled the expansion of organized crime and led directly to the deaths of innocent bystanders in the gang wars and the terrorization of entire communities (when we watched the show Crips and Bloods: Made in America I observed in my journal afterwards that given that we’re not going to make these gangs go away, especially with the illegal drug trade giving them the money and resources to arm themselves as well or better than the cops, the best thing that could happen might be the “Mafiazation” of the Crips and Bloods, by which I meant encouraging them to meet across the table and set up something like the Mafia’s Commission to sort out disputes about territory so they don’t end up being fought out on the street in their own and other people’s blood).

Both alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition (as former Prohibition agent turned Repeal advocate Col. Ira Reeves wrote in his 1931 book Ol’ Rum River) raised the price of the substances and lowered their quality. Both fostered a fundamental disrespect for law in general, especially among young people. Both made it impossible to regulate and tax the substances — one interviewee in the Prohibition movie noted ruefully that as long as alcohol was totally illegal, you could drink if you were under 21, you could buy alcohol after 2 a.m., and you could drink anywhere you liked under any circumstances, while allowing alcohol to be made and sold legally meant the government could regulate times and places of its use, set a minimum age and tax it. (Kevin Sabet argues that “alcohol use leads to $180 billion in costs associated with health care, the criminal justice system and lost productivity; alcohol taxes, on the other hand — kept outrageously low by a powerful lobby — generate revenue amounting to less than a tenth of these costs.” To my mind, that’s an argument for raising the taxes on alcohol the way we have raised them on tobacco, where they now do come a lot closer to covering the actual social costs of use and make users themselves, not society as a whole, pay those costs. Indeed, the policy we have more or less stumbled onto with tobacco — allow its legal manufacture and sale, regulate the times and places where it can be used so people who don’t want to be exposed to it don’t have to be, and impose high taxes on it so users pay for its social costs — is the model I would want to see followed for the end of drug prohibition.) And both simply didn’t work; while alcohol prohibition may have lowered the total amount of booze consumed in the U.S. (and the repeal of the drug prohibition laws probably would result in an increase in the number of drug users and the amounts they consume), the people who did drink drank more, and more often. (One wonders if the one-third as many people who got diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver when Prohibition was in effect were diagnosed with it at an earlier age than its previous victims.)

 Part three of Prohibition offered some fascinating vignettes, focusing largely (and inevitably) on Al Capone and the rivals he defeated (sometimes by having them killed, sometimes just by intimidating them out of the business and out of town) to control Chicago’s bootleg beer and liquor business before the federal government brought him down for income-tax evasion; Chicago’s Republican Mayor, Big Bill Thompson, who was defeated in 1924 and re-elected in 1928 largely on his promise to ignore the Prohibition laws and let the gangsters operate (though the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929 dramatically turned public opinion against the gangsters again even while the public, or large chunks of it, continued to partake of their product). It also mentioned Al Smith and the bizarre hate campaign waged against him by the radical Right when he ran for President in 1928 — showing that the tactics used against Barack Obama (and Bill Clinton before him) come from a well-established and quite venerable playbook — in Smith’s case the canards centered around his well-known opposition to Prohibition as well as his Catholicism (including one rumor, as loony-tunes as the Obama “birther” nonsense and apparently equally as widely believed, that Smith was building a transatlantic tunnel straight to the Vatican, presumably to get his marching orders directly from the Pope), which was largely masterminded by Warren Harding’s honest and incorruptible Prohibition enforcement agent, Mabel Walker Willebrandt, who expected Herbert Hoover to appoint her Attorney General in gratitude for her role in the anti-Smith smear campaign (and, when he didn’t, she resigned from the government, became a defense attorney, represented bootleggers and ultimately converted to Roman Catholicism herself).

It also mentioned James Cannon, Jr., who took over the Anti-Saloon League after Wayne Wheeler, who had masterminded the strategy that passed Prohibition in the first place, died in 1927; Cannon was a Virginia Methodist minister who had run the campaign to get state prohibition enacted in Virginia in 1914 and, though he was himself a Democrat, he took an active role in the propaganda campaign against Al Smith in 1928 and, according to the Web page on him in the Encyclopedia Virginia [], “Charges of embezzlement, stock-market gambling, and adultery, fanned by Cannon's numerous enemies, dogged the bishop from 1929 until 1934 and diminished his influence thereafter.” (He’s neither the first nor the last holier-than-thou religious leader who’s been revealed as a hypocrite who didn’t practice what he preached.) Among the most fascinating people profiled on this show were Pauline Sabin, who had married a prominent Long Island man and had a fortune in her own right, who got involved in the cause of Repeal after she “was repelled by politicians who voted dry and then turned up at her dinner table expecting a drink” (and whose fortune helped underwrite a Repeal campaign that for the first time could match the financial resources available through the churches to the Prohibitionists — plus ça change, plus ça même chose); and Lois Long, who at age 23 (the daughter of a Congregationalist minister and herself educated at Vassar) landed a job with the newly formed New Yorker magazine and, under the pen name “Lipstick,” wrote a regular column about the city’s nightlife and particularly its speakeasies — in which number counted such famous (and still legendary) establishments as the Cotton Club, Connie’s Inn and Small’s Paradise.

The show quoted her review of the Cotton Club that hailed Duke Ellington’s band, then the club’s house orchestra, as the finest jazz band she’d ever heard, after which she described their music as “barbaric” (and being familiar with Ellington’s music from the records he made at the time one could readily imagine that word coming to mind, not only because it frequently accompanied floor shows purporting to represent goings-on among Blacks in the African jungle but also because those sounds must have been a jolt to a young, well-bred white girl whose previous encounters with “jazz” were probably limited to the safe white dance bands like Paul Whiteman’s, Roger Wolfe Kahn’s and Sam Lanin’s), and though the club scene of her day has long since vanished (some of the nightclubs she covered actually survived Repeal and were still operating in the 1960’s but they’ve died long since), it seems as if a collection of her writings would be worth having as a book: she had the kind of brittle wit New Yorker founding editor Harold Ross liked in his writers and it seems from the quotes from it in this show that her work would still be entertaining reading today. And Burns and Novick also couldn’t resist depicting the stunts Fiorello La Guardia pulled as a Congressmember (a Republican!) from New York City, in one instance taking two legal products to the floor of the house — supposedly non-alcoholic “near beer” (like similar substances today it did contain alcohol, but only in trace amounts) and malt extract — mixing them in a glass and producing illegal beer. A New York Prohibition agent dared La Guardia to try that on home turf, promising that he would be arrested; he did, and he wasn’t.

The episode title “A Nation of Hypocrites” was all too accurate — indeed, it’s all too accurate to describe today’s anti-drug (and especially anti-cannabis) prohibition; the arguments used today to justify the “war on drugs” are about the same as the ones made by the Prohibitionists against alcohol (one can see in the films of the 1930’s made to justify the anti-marijuana prohibition — Reefer Madness, Marihuana: Weed with Roots in Hell, Assassin of Youth — the same kind of bonkers propaganda the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had pushed on schoolchildren two and three decades before), and in that regard it’s worthy to note Kevin Sabet’s assertion in his Los Angeles Times op-ed that “the key difference between alcohol and drug prohibition … lies in the substance itself. Alcohol, unlike illegal drugs, has a long history of widespread, accepted use in our society, dating back to before Biblical times. Illegal drugs cannot claim such pervasive use by a large part of the planet’s population over such a long period of time.” Actually they can; marijuana is known to have been used as far back as ancient Egypt, opium has been smoked by the Chinese for millennia, and similarly the indigenous people of the coca-growing regions of South America have been chewing on coca leaves (the source of cocaine) and getting a mild, transitory and relatively harmless buzz on it for equally long periods. (The most dangerous drugs of our time are the products of the pharmaceutical industry, which in the late 19th century figured out how to refine coca leaves into cocaine and opium into morphine and heroin, and in the 20th century created entirely new drugs, susceptible to abuse, including amphetamines, LSD and a whole pharmacopeia of things like oxycodone, valium, dilaudid and other purely synthetic drugs that, obtainable quasi-legally from doctors, have now become the most commonly abused substances of their strength and potency in the U.S.)

What Sabet is right about is that the perception of these drugs among ordinary Americans is quite different from their perception of alcohol — reason enough why nationwide alcohol prohibition lasted only 13 years while marijuana prohibition (to take the most egregious example because, while not a totally benign substance, marijuana is certainly no more risky or damaging than alcohol or tobacco, and it is profoundly irrational that two of those should be legally obtainable while the third one isn’t) has been pursued steadily since the 1930’s (when all those about-to-be-unemployed Prohibition agents needed another substance the government could ban in order to keep them all working — and keep the corrupt ones supplied with bribes, no doubt) and still has the support of a majority of Americans, probably including many who’ve used it themselves (yet another echo of alcohol prohibition, of which Will Rogers — whose native Oklahoma didn’t get rid of its state prohibition law until 1959! — joked that Prohibition would remain in effect as long as people could get drunk and stagger to the polls to vote dry). — 10/13/11