Thoughts on “Prohibition”

Editor’s Note: Points readers will recognize the name of today’s guest blogger, Mark Schrad; he was the second person (and the first academic author) to submit to the blistering interrogation that is The Points Interview.  The author of The Political Power of Bad Ideas: Networks, Institutions, and the Global Prohibition Wave, Schrad is an assistant professor of Political Science at Villanova University.  In conjunction with his current research project on contemporary Russian temperance, he runs the website Here he ruminates on anti-alcohol politics closer to home, specifically as they were depicted in Ken Burns’s Prohibition.

So—it has been a week since the premiere of the much-anticipated Prohibition documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: a few nights of sitting back with a bowl of popcorn and a favored libation to take in the series’ three installments on the rise, duration, and demise of American prohibition; followed by time to take in the insightful reviews by David Fahey on Episode One, “A Nation of Drunkards,” and Episode Two, “A Nation of Scofflaws,” additional insights of Frankie Bailey on Episode Two, and Jason Lantzer’s take on Episode Three, “A Nation of Hypocrites”—in addition to the thoughtful comments of the ADHS online community on each.

The Medium is the Message

Stepping back to appreciate the series in its entirety, the general reception (and one that I share) seems to be one of appreciation for the historical treatment, admiration for the artistic side of the documentarians’ craft—but a lamentation that in the time constraints of a 5-1/2 hour series, the colorful was often favored over the important. “The limitations of the program are largely the result of the nature of popular TV history that can present only a handful of stories and prefers the colorful to the complex,” David Fahey writes on “A Nation of Drunkards.” Surely, the nature of the medium and the audience dictates much of this.  Ken Burns himself admits as much: “I’m in the business of trying to tell stories,” Burns recently told the Telegraph. “A good story is hard to do—particularly complicated stories. ‘Story’ in our media culture often means simplification.”

That’s fine. But since Prohibition reaches such a wide audience, these are hardly idle “stories.” In great measure, they reflect the way we understand this era in our shared history, and shape the way future audiences will understand them as well. So I feel that we should not be quick to dismiss some of the professional criticisms offered here as idle “gee—wouldn’t it have been great if they’d (have had time to) discuss interesting person/topic [x].” We highlight those omissions not because they are necessarily enthralling, but because they are important to an unbiased understanding of the questions at issue here. To my mind, Joe Spillane has it just about right in criticizing (in his comments on Episode Three) “the sense of inevitability that underlies the film’s treatment of both prohibition and repeal.” 

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