New PBS Documentary on Prohibition

As I’ve said it here many times before, I’m a lover of history, especially the kind that gets overlooked by the average person. The Prohibition Era is perhaps one of the least known and least appreciated episodes in America’s brief but vibrant history. While most Americans are familiar with the overall premise – an ill-conceived but moralizing attempt at banning alcohol that ultimately failed miserably – they are hardly aware of how formative it was to our political and cultural identity.

As with most subjects in history, Prohibition provides us with many relevant and topical questions for the present-day: concerns about the role of government, morality, attitudes to the law, and individualism. It’s likely for this reason that PBS has recently aired a nearly 6-hour long documentary that provides an in-depth account of this vibrant and influential period. The introduction on it’s very own website sums it up pretty well.

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.

Indeed, this will hopefully spur some public interest on the subject, assuming enough people end up watching it (I’m trying to do my part to make sure the word gets out). I haven’t seen it yet myself, but I’m sure it’ll leave me with a lot of reflections, especially about the tribulations of trying to alter social conventions for the better. If any of you manage to get through it all, please feel free to share.

4 comments on “New PBS Documentary on Prohibition

  1. As with just about everything Ken Burns does, “Prohibition” was very interesting and informative, and highly recommended. The analogy to current drug laws and the failed “War on Drugs” is so obvious it doesn’t even need to be stated.

    • Indeed, I meant to touch on that angle a bit more but didn’t have the time. I’m sure the documentary does a good enough job though. Thanks for commenting!

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