Chicago Tribune Reviews The War on Alcohol

 

Lisa McGirr’s ‘The War on Alcohol’ illuminates past,

sheds light on present

 

By Bill Savage                                                     January 14, 2016

 

The more-or-less official motto of historians is the famous line from George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A codicil to this might be: “Historians who cannot connect the past to the present are condemned to irrelevance.” Far too many histories fail to make clear how their readers could learn from the past, not just to understand it on its own terms, but to avoid repeating its mistakes. Harvard historian Lisa McGirr’s new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” emphatically connects the past to the present.

Many excellent books have delved into this subject, both recently and during Prohibition, especially perhaps Daniel Okrent’s “Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” and George Ade’s 1931 polemic, “The Old-Time Saloon” (full disclosure: I am working on a new, annotated, edition of Ade’s book). McGirr’s well-written and accessible volume is essential because she not only recounts familiar aspects of Prohibition with insight and verve — she clearly, cogently and persuasively connects that era’s politics and policies to our contemporary Prohibition: America’s decades-long “War on Drugs.”After recounting the story of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Movement and the Anti-Saloon League’s legislative victory in passing the 18th Amendment, McGirr delves deeply into what today we’d call the “identity politics” of Prohibition. The complexity of this social and political movement is astonishing: Anything that could get Jane Addams and the Ku Klux Klan on the same side of any argument is beyond simple summary. Nonetheless, McGirr is at her best when she delves into the complexities of how different sorts of Americans experienced Prohibition.

What it meant to live under the Volstead Act and government enforcement regimes differed based on what sort of American you were, and not just along a Wet-Dry axis. Rich or middle class or working class or poor, urban or small town or rural, white or black or Latino, male or female: Prohibition and its law enforcement effected everyone differently, in ways that had profound and lasting effects on American culture.

McGirr persuasively argues that President Herbert Hoover and the Republican overreach on enforcing a deeply despised law changed American politics more than most historians have understood (or admitted). Under the flag of repeal, African-Americans and white city dwellers flocked to the Democrats. McGirr writes: “Prohibition opposition became the cudgel that broke apart earlier loyalties and forged new ones.” The seismic shift of African-Americans abandoning the party of Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, cannot be overstated. For various urban white ethnic immigrants to see past their divisions and agree that the Democrats’ stance on repeal mattered more than anything else was also earth-shaking.

This change did not happen overnight: Anti-Catholic prejudice prevented 1928 Democratic Presidential candidate Al Smith for capitalizing on such a coalition sooner. But the subsequent four years of draconian federal encroachment on everyday life — and vigorous political organization and get-out-the-vote drives by Democrats — enabled Franklin Delano Roosevelt to lead the way to the New Deal by campaigning for repeal.

So, Prohibition caused a fundamental political re-orientation, one that enabled the Democratic Party to occupy the White House for 20 years, and to change the very idea of what the federal government should, or could, do about nationwide social issues. The New Deal (and the Great Society) government programs happened only because of the political realignment born of Prohibition and the very idea that the federal government should address social issues at all.

 

The relevance to 21st-century America, in the fifth decade of the “War on Drugs” declared by President Richard Nixon, is crystal clear by the time the “War on Alcohol” concludes. McGirr writes, “The U.S. war on alcohol built the foundations of the twentieth-century federal penal state. At the same time, the widened scope of federal power and the state administrative apparatus over a fourteen-year period oriented Americans ever more toward the nation-state for the resolution of social problems, while inspiring paradoxical disquiet over that very expansion of the government’s sphere of action.”

To cite yet another maxim about history, William Faulkner’s: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” McGirr eloquently demonstrates that while national Prohibition of alcohol died in 1933, it is not past; we are repeating its mistakes eight decades later. The contemporary American and international prohibition on drugs parallels the violent crime, extreme law enforcement and vast prisons born out of Prohibition.

McGirr reminds her readers that “The war on alcohol was brought to an end by a powerful combination of mass hostility to the law, elite opinion makers who dared challenge the consensus, and politicians who saw repeal as the road to the White House and even party realignment.” Perhaps books like McGirr’s will teach Americans to repeat the liberating logic of repeal. 

Bill Savage teaches Chicago literature at Northwestern University.

‘The War on Alcohol’  By Lisa McGirr, W.W. Norton, 330 pages, $27.95

Copyright © 2016, Chicago Tribune

P4P Conference Call

with Lisa McGirr

Sunday, April 3rd at 7 pm EST

Call in number (641) 715-3605

Access code 767775#

Advertisements
Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. Al Bell

     /  March 31, 2016

    This is a superb commentary on a truly significant piece of historical investigative reporting. I wish it could appear in every newspaper in America. Congratulations, Mr. Savage, on adding to the insights so thoroughly captured by Lisa McGirr.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Independent Lens

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 335 other followers

  • Featured Links

  • Categories

  • Facebook

  • Links