Acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns has turned his documentary talents to the subject of Prohibition, and his efforts will air on PBS in October.
If this film is anywhere near as effective and interesting as his previous work on baseball, the Civil War or jazz, it will be well worth watching. The three-part exploration of Prohibition covers a total of five and one-half hours. Burns views the entire phenomenon in context, from the rise of the temperance movement through Repeal.
The Prohibition experience in America is fraught with irony, and Burns seems sensitive to that. After fighting for nearly a century against the evils of drunkenness, temperance activists succeeded in passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which became law in 1920. It was supposed to usher in a new era of moral rectitude in the United States. Instead, the opposite occurred—consumption of liquor skyrocketed, bootleggers became millionaires and billionaires, and breaking the law became widespread and glamorous.
We’re told that his documentary “raises vital questions that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago—about means and ends, individual rights and responsibilities, and the proper role of government.” It’s fitting that he should do this now, as a wave of neo-Prohibitionist feeling seems to be sweeping the country and many groups appear eager to repeat the mistake of Prohibition all over again. Before we indulge in the control freak’s version of Groundhog Day, it would be useful to remember that the best way to encourage people to do something is to outlaw it and make it forbidden.
Prohibition actually accomplished many things. It confused a serious social problem (drunkenness) with the symptoms of that problem (moderate drinking). It increased alcohol consumption, and made it appear more exotic and desirable than it had been before. It institutionalized corruption in our law enforcement system. It elevated petty criminals to the status of organized crime bosses. It encouraged many citizens to believe that our system of laws was a hypocritical sham. It didn’t stop people from drinking—but, then again, you can’t have everything.