After a bit of a break, the “Points Interview” feature returns this week. Christopher Snowdon becomes the eighteenth author to face the relentless grilling for which this feature has become so well known. Christopher joins us to discuss his book, The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800 (2011) [an arresting cover design, by the way!]. He’s also the author of Velvet Glove, Iron Fist (2009), which examines the history of anti-smoking activity from the 15th century to the present day. He’s a blogger as well, and those of you interested in seeing more should check out his Velvet Glove, Iron Fist blog.
Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.
The Art of Suppression seeks to draw a character profile of The Prohibitionist. It offers five case studies – two about alcohol, two about drugs and one about tobacco – spanning 200 years and covering various countries, but particularly the USA and the UK. I wanted to see how substances—which is to say ‘drugs’ in the modern sense of the word: narcotics, stimulants, alcohol and tobacco—get demonised and become illegal. How does this happen? More importantly, who makes it happen?
There is something fascinating and mildly comic about people who dedicate their short time on Earth to stopping other people doing things. This is not an impulse I can relate to—although maybe I’m in the minority in that respect—and I’m intrigued by what compels them. There are a few cranks and oddballs in the book, as you might expect, but more often they’re well-meaning monomaniacs who have a very rigid sense of morality and a heightened sense of idealism.
What the book does is bring these different types of prohibition together to find common themes. It’s not really a book about the substances themselves, nor even the people who take them, but about the moral entrepreneurs who believe they can eradicate them. There are differences between them, of course, but I would say there are more similarities than differences, and whether the subject is opium-smoking in 19th century China or alcohol prohibition in Finland, there are lessons that can be applied to our circumstances today.