Ken Burns’ ‘Prohibition’: A Documentary About the Promise of America
After he tried to institutionalize both baseball and jazz–as if those raucous American traditions either needed or deserved institutionalization–there were plenty of viewers like you who believed the only one needing institutionalization was Ken Burns himself, and not in a way he would have preferred. But I’ve never been able to hold Burns’ sentimental soul against him for very long. Even if I prefer the sober historian’s footnotes to Burns’ own Foote-notes any day, as long as he’s not getting weepy-nostalgic for something that never existed, or celebrating Confederate generals as nothing more menacing than a bunch of crazy old coots (this is where Shelby Foote’s complicity comes in), Burns has always served up hearty and unobjectionable slices of Americana. Some stories, in other words, are Burns-proof, while at the same time somehow encouraging only Burns’ best tendencies. Prohibition is one of those stories.
It was a bad idea in the American tradition, in that it was a bad idea that was inspired by (mostly) righteous considerations. It provided a stage for folk figures as disparate as Carrie Nation and Al Capone, along with a hundred others in between. And even though I’ve had a chance to see only the first of three hour-and-a-half episodes to Prohibition, it’s already apparent that this is one Burns got right.
We don’t watch these things for Lessons–or we shouldn‘t. History is fascinating for its own self and its own sake. But sometimes the Lessons come through anyway, unavoidable. It’s like that with Prohibition, which is a timely topic in ways probably never even intended by Burns. Twenty minutes in, Burns’ narrator is already seemingly sending signals by telling us–over a woodwind dirge accompanied by a camera-pan of black-and-white photography, of course–about what happened the first time Americans tried to abolish alcohol, just before the Civil War, and what ultimately came of that effort:
Membership in Temperance Societies dwindled. Soldiers and civilians alike continued to drink, in part to mask the grief and horror of the war raging around them. And in 1862, the federal government itself, hungry for revenues to pay for the war, helped to legitimize the liquor trade by charging retailers a $20 license fee, and taxing manufacturers twenty cents for every gallon of distilled spirits they produced, and a dollar for every keg of beer. Within a year, fully one-third of the federal budget would come from taxing alcohol.
If Americans knew, at the time, just how crucial these liquor taxes had been in keeping the economy afloat, they seem to have done a great job of hiding it by the time alcohol’s next reform-movement came around, a half-century later. Most people didn’t remember the Civil War, and Woodrow Wilson’s War to End All Wars had just been won–with enormous assistance from liquor taxes, by the way. Americans couldn’t see the Depression, or even the depression, that a full-out ban on alcohol might portend. All you could hear was a bunch of women who wanted their husbands back, and the only way they knew how to go about getting them was to banish liquor from their lives.
It’s not their fault that they believed such a scheme would actually work. There was no precedent for the kind of elaborate underworld which Prohibition made possible–the kind of manufacture-and-delivery network that brought liquor to whoever wanted it, seemingly more efficiently than ever, and more potently. The only real difference was that this time the government wasn’t getting any kind of piece of it (unless you count individual officials, who received their personal share under the table). America got poorer while Capone got richer, and, in order to compensate for this, America instituted the income tax. It was not enough to elude the Great Depression.
(And Capone, bizarrely enough, ultimately went to prison over failure to pay his taxes. Silly Al: Didn’t he know that those taxes were, for his own purposes, the biggest bargain going, coming as they did in exchange for the right to found his empire?)
We don’t need episodes 2 and 3 to know how this story ends, unless you believe the story’s not yet over, in which case not even Ken Burns can be of help. According to Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (an author and a book Burns heavily, and wisely, relies on), “In the very first post-Repeal year, even though many states remained dry or severely limited the sale of alcohol, the government collected $258,911,332 in alcohol taxes—instantly, nearly 9 percent of total federal revenue.”
If the federal government takes over the marijuana and prostitution industries–or at least legalizes them, making them taxable–we’ll see a lot of our money troubles clear up quick, and not just from the taxes themselves. The entire over-burdened law-enforcement system will catch a break, and although a whole lot of gangsters will be out of a job, the new economy will quickly absorb them, while decent Americans can step into these thriving new industries that do no more harm than many, considerably less harm than most.
Many oppose this kind of thinking on moral grounds, but their morality is as outmoded and useless–as reprehensible in its hypocrisies–as the original Prohibition itself. But once we start down this road, we have to be very careful it doesn’t become an opportunity squandered–on wars of choice, or on tax-cuts for the rich, or on any other genuinely immoral enterprise. There aren’t that many victimless crimes to capitalize on, or sins so sweet that Americans will repeatedly, and at point of purchase, pay a tax on them. Once those are gone, they really are gone, and there isn’t a federal bureaucracy in all the world that can create any more of them. They’re one of our truly finite resources, and we abuse them at our own peril.
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