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Session #22: 75 Years Demonizing Alcohol

This is our 22nd Session a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday and today’s topic is quite relevant for the day, as this is the 75th anniversary of the repeal of the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ending thirteen years of our national prohibition. Our host today, naturally, is the 21st Amendment Blog, written by Shaun O’Sullivan and Nico Freccia, co-founders of the 21st Amendment Brewery & Restaurant in San Francisco, California. Here’s how they put their approach to this month’s topic:

In 1920, there were thousands of breweries across America making unique, hand-crafted beer. The passage of Prohibition wiped out this great culture. On December 5, 1933, the states ratified the 21st Amendment, repealing the 18th Amendment, thus ending 13 years of Prohibition in America. At the 21st Amendment Brewery, the repeal of Prohibition means we can celebrate the right to brew beer, the freedom to be innovative, and the obligation to have fun.

What does the repeal of Prohibition mean to you? How will you celebrate your right to drink beer?

I confess I’ve been struggling mightily for something to write about Prohibition, as I feel like I’ve written about it so much lately that there’s really not much left to say. But then my friend and colleague, historian and author Maureen Ogle sent me a link to an Op-Ed piece she did for U.S. News & World Report. Her unique and fresh take on the ramifications of Prohibition’s end was a revelation for me. It was like getting in the bathtub of cheap hooch with Archimedes himself. It was a real “Eureka,” “a-ha moment” and “epiphany” all rolled into one. The wheels started turning. Maybe there’s another way to look at this.

Most of us have taken it as a given that the repeal of Prohibition was a victory for the pro-alcohol majority and a denunciation of the anti-alcohol sentiments that had brought it about. But maybe not. Despite its obvious failures on many fronts, it was the depression that really hastened its end. The economy needed a shot in the arm, and legalizing alcohol created jobs, tax revenue and good will. In the end, it was money, not morals that brought down Prohibition.

For just one example of how bad Prohibition was, check out Prohibition and the Rise of Crime, a blog post by J. Michael Jones, a retired police chief.

That’s not to say I won’t be celebrating today. I will. I’ll be in downtown San Francisco later marching in a Repeal Day parade. I’ll be enjoying some legal beer and toasting how good the American beer scene is today. And I won’t be alone, of course. There are numerous celebrations throughout the country today. But I wonder if we’re celebrating the right things? Or celebrating the right way?

The NBWA (National Beer Wholesalers Association) released a press release today extolling the virtues of the three-tier distribution, a system created out of whole cloth as a way to return alcohol to the public arena after passage of the 21st Amendment.

“This anniversary is a great time to recognize the success of the past 75 years of effective, state-based alcohol regulation since the ratification of the 21st Amendment,” said NBWA President Craig Purser. “A ‘one size fits all’ approach to alcohol regulation during Prohibition was a failure. The 21st Amendment allows individual states to regulate alcohol as their citizens see fit.”

Their celebration is understandable, of course, since after Prohibition an entirely new segment of the beer industry was created — The Distributor. But while understandable, it’s hard not to view their celebration as little too self-serving. They’re not really celebrating alcohol being legally available again so much as their own success in creating a new business model. This new system created a lot of wealth for a number of people and organizations. I’m not saying they haven’t worked hard for it or that they don’t deserve to celebrate their success, but it just feels a little too much like self-congratulatory patting themselves on back. To be fair the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States had a similar press release.

Many other mainstream writing about today’s anniversary is likewise self-congratulatory. Many gave very standard accounts, such as the Illinois Telegraph, the San Francisco Chronicle (which also has some interesting local info and photos), USA Today and even the UK’s Independent. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with any of these or the countless other similar articles that will be published around the world today.

In the Independent, author Rupert Cornwell reflects on the fact that in America “the mindset that produced Prohibition lives on. The cocktail, it is said, is enjoying a new golden age. But a third of American adults don’t drink at all, and the country ranks only 40th in the international league table of alcohol consumption. Indeed, since the late 1970s, consumption per head in the US has been falling steadily.”

The great “war on alcohol” between 1920 and 1933 may have ended in resounding defeat. But an American belief that human vices can be eradicated, and human nature perfected, persists, visible in the continuing, scarcely less futile “war on drugs” declared by Richard Nixon in 1971 and, who knows, maybe in George Bush’s “war on terror” as well. But don’t let such somber thoughts spoil the party tonight.

He’s not the only one to notice the comparison between Prohibition and our current drug policy, such as Stop the Drug War. Even the Wall Street Journal has an article today entitled Let’s End Drug Prohibition. Are we finally starting to realize as a culture that regulating is better than outlawing? Sadly, probably not. The neo-prohibitionists are still running amuck.

But as Maureen Ogle points out in yet another Repeal Day article, this one in the Philadelphia Inquirer, it’s really our Constitution that was saved by ending Prohibition. As she details, Prohibition led to corruption, conspiracy and contempt for the law by not just citizens, but which also — and I just can’t put it better than Ogle — “oozed into and out of every level of government, from Washington to the smallest municipality.” And that’s not just hindsight, a report in 1931 by federal commission that had studied Prohibition for two years, concluded that it was an abject failure and as “the more flagrantly authorities disregarded citizens’ rights, the more cynical Americans became. Young adults in particular — the very people who would become “leaders in the next generation” — demonstrated overt ‘hostility to or contempt for the law.'”

As the Patriot Act (not to mention our current lame duck administration) similarly disregards the Constitution and the rights of American citizens, and we appear to be heading into another protracted recession (if not an actual depression), the conditions seem eerily similar to those of seventy-five plus years ago. As they worried then, what might a continuing disrespect for the Constitution lead to? I’m worried. Aren’t you? Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled that “change” may be on the horizon, but I can’t help but continue to be apprehensive that our swing to the right and the threats to democracy that that entailed will so easily be undone by good intentions. Movement Conservatism may be in a weakened state right now, but it’s hardly on life support.

And speaking of beer and elections, did you know that in seven states, it’s still illegal to sell or serve alcohol on Election Day? Weird, huh? In Alaska, Kentucky, Indiana, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Utah and West Virginia alcohol and voting apparently still don’t mix. According to TriState, these [s]o-called “Blue Laws” date back to the 1930s and make it illegal to sell alcohol on certain important religious or political days. Blue laws were meant to protect the integrity of the voting process in a time when many saloons also served as polling places. In the past 70 years, most states have either relaxed their Election Day bans or repealed them altogether.”

But finally, back to Maureen Ogle’s devastating insight into what the end of Prohibition has wrought. Though she finds the term clumsy, I like it. She asserts that repeal “institutionalized the demonization of alcohol.” For some, that may be hard to swallow (yes, intended) but for me it made perfect sense and made me look at the issue from a different perspective.

To summarize what Ogle means by that, here’s her introductory paragraph:

Prohibition ended on Dec. 5, 1933, not with a bang but with the thud of thousands of pages of new city, state, and federal laws that dictated when, where, and how Americans could make, buy, sell, and drink alcohol. Ratification of the 21st Amendment, repealing Prohibition, was neither a green light to drink nor a victory over the “dry” crusade that had produced Prohibition. Seventy-five years later, we’re still captives of that crusade.

Indeed, the 21st Amendment heralded the age of regulating alcohol like never before. It created new rules and regulations, label approval procedures, licensing requirement, all manner of new taxes and previously unheard of restrictions on all aspects of how alcoholic beverages could be made, sold, marketed, packaged and even consumed. At every step from grain to glass, there was the watchful eye of the government to tell everybody what role they were to play and within what parameters the game would take place.

I can only imagine that people were so happy to have alcohol back that it was scarcely even noticed by the ordinary public. I’m sure the breweries were keenly aware, but they were undoubtedly thrilled to be back in business under any conditions and more likely figured being regulated in business was far better than not being in business at all.

Before Prohibition, there were around 1,500 breweries, but less than half reopened afterward. And for a variety of reasons, the number of breweries continued to decline sharply. By the year I was born, 1959, there were only about 200 left. At least one of the reasons that the re-opened breweries struggled was the maze of new federal and state regulations imposed on how alcohol companies operated their businesses.

After Prohibition, the original message of the temperance movement was not only alive and well, but became internalized and institutionalized — essentially set in stone — by the very laws created to regulate it. That message is still with us today. Simply put, it is this:

Alcohol is evil. No one can be trusted with it.

That message permeates all discussions of alcohol policy and any “issues” about alcohol. That message has been communicated by the laws passed seventy-five years ago and generations of new adults have soaked up that message almost completely. That’s it’s thoroughly untrue goes not only unchallenged but the notion isn’t even considered as a topic for discussion, so embedded is it in our collective psyche. Every aspect of how we treat alcohol has this false message looking over our shoulder, refusing to go away.

Alcohol is not inherently evil, we just treat it as if it were. People can be trusted with it, and in fact most people who drink alcohol are responsible adults, we just treat them like children in our over-paternalistic society. And we do this because we’ve assumed the temperance propaganda message to be true and we’ve created alcohol laws under that same mistaken assumption.

Ogle sums up:

It’s a vicious, and lethal, cycle: As long as we remain addicted to demonization, we avoid serious discussion about those values. The longer we avoid that conversation, the longer we pass on the booze-is-bad message to our kids, who grow up to pass the message on to their kids. And as long as we teach children to fear rather than respect alcohol, we’ll interrupt the silence with periodic spasms of hand-wringing and finger-pointing about campus drinking, binge drinking, underage drinking, and the like. But here’s the truth: The “alcohol problem” is of our own creation. We’ve got the drinking culture we deserve.

I agree with everything Maureen says with the possible exception of that last sentence. I’m not entirely persuaded that we “deserve” the drinking culture we have today. If our present “drinking culture” had been arrived at by an ongoing open, fair and honest public debate about alcohol, then I’d wholeheartedly agree that we got what we deserve. But I believe that what we’re stuck with today is the result of subterfuge, conspiracy, propaganda and out and out lies by people and organizations with a Carrie Nation-style axe to grind.

I prefer an image of prohibitionists having slunk away to lick their wounds in defeat but the truth is they’ve never really gone away. They’ve never stopped trying to keep their message alive. That they’ve been so successful while at the same time convincing us they’d lost is deviously clever. They’re like the tortured, evil protagonist in every horror movie who refuses to die, no matter how many times he’s shot, sliced or garroted. They always come back, don’t they? To me, that’s the unfortunate message of this 75th anniversary. It’s certainly worth celebrating 75 years of beer in America. But it’s perhaps more important to recognize that the battle didn’t end December 5, 1933. It merely changed the terms of engagement from above ground prohibition to underground demonization. Happy Repeal Day everybody. Drink up.

The Demon Alcohol, by Robert Steven Connett.

This is a nicely imagined vision of how we view alcohol today, in a Hieronymus Bosch sort of way.

For a lot more great information about Prohibition, check out Prohibition Repeal.

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