Points readers in the U.S. will perhaps be aware that the new documentary, Prohibition, begins a three-night run on PBS this evening. Directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, Prohibition will likely bring millions of Americans to the televisions to contemplate the great experiment. Not wanting to be left out of the conversation, here at Points we’ll be posting a series of comments on the program, which begins this evening (October 2) and runs through October 4. Here’s the schedule:
October 3–David M. Fahey, author of numerous works on alcohol and temperance history, retired professor of history at Miami University of Ohio, past president of the Alcohol and Drugs History Society, and recipient of its Senior Scholar achievement award for lifetime service, will offer his thoughts on “A Nation of Drunkards” and (on October 4) episode two, “A Nation of Scofflaws.”
October 4–Frankie Bailey, professor of criminal justice at Albany and the author (with Alice Green) of Wicked Albany: Lawlessness and Liquor in the Prohibition Era (The History Press), will comment on the second night’s episode, “A Nation of Scofflaws.”
October 5–Jason S. Lantzer, historian of American religion and social movements, and author of “Prohibition is Here to Stay”: The Reverend Edward S. Shumaker and the Dry Crusade in America (Notre Dame University Press), will comment on the final night’s episode, “A Nation of Hypocrites.”
Any Points readers interested in live-blogging the telecast should contact the managing editors straightaway! For the more circumspect, the Comments sections of the posts on each night’s coverage are yours to fill. Meantime, here’s a preview of the series:
And, here’s how PBS describes the series:
PROHIBITION is a three-part, five-and-a-half-hour documentary film series directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that tells the story of the rise, rule, and fall of the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the entire era it encompassed.
The culmination of nearly a century of activism, Prohibition was intended to improve, even to ennoble, the lives of all Americans, to protect individuals, families, and society at large from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.
But the enshrining of a faith-driven moral code in the Constitution paradoxically caused millions of Americans to rethink their definition of morality. Thugs became celebrities, responsible authority was rendered impotent. Social mores in place for a century were obliterated. Especially among the young, and most especially among young women, liquor consumption rocketed, propelling the rest of the culture with it: skirts shortened. Music heated up. America’s Sweetheart morphed into The Vamp.
Prohibition turned law-abiding citizens into criminals, made a mockery of the justice system, caused illicit drinking to seem glamorous and fun, encouraged neighborhood gangs to become national crime syndicates, permitted government officials to bend and sometimes even break the law, and fostered cynicism and hypocrisy that corroded the social contract all across the country. With Prohibition in place, but ineffectively enforced, one observer noted, America had hardly freed itself from the scourge of alcohol abuse – instead, the “drys” had their law, while the “wets” had their liquor.
The story of Prohibition’s rise and fall is a compelling saga that goes far beyond the oft-told tales of gangsters, rum runners, flappers, and speakeasies, to reveal a complicated and divided nation in the throes of momentous transformation. The film raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago – about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, the proper role of government and finally, who is — and who is not — a real American.
Prohibition begins tonight, so we invite Points readers to check in each day following the broadcasts for our informed and distinctive takes on the series.
Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004). More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.