Milestones: Prohibition

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People have been getting drunk since the dawn of time. Most of the time, no one sees any problem with it. A cuneiform tablet discovered at the ancient city of Ugarit, now at least 3,200 years old, offers a recipe for a hangover cure. Clearly no one thought any less of booze then. Judaism can actually encourage drinking. At the festival of Purim, one is said to be meant to get so drunk that you can no longer distinguish between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai”.

Islam doesn’t look favourably on liquor, it is true, but as a rule, throughout history, drink has been universal. Until, that is, 1920s America. Never before had alcohol been completely banned in a culture that was used to drinking it, and America is still living with the consequences.

The promoters of the idea were of course various types of Protestant, mainly Methodists, who had been campaigning for the ‘temperance movement’ for over a century before the state actually gave way and outlawed alcohol altogether. With this move, American culture was changed forever.

People still wanted liquor, and organized crime grew up to supply it to them. We take this so much for granted that it’s odd to imagine a time when gangsters were not just an obvious stereotype. But the situation is worse than this. For the first time criminals could make big money, and Prohibition corrupted even the respectable institutions of society. Lawman on your tail? Pay him off or bump him off. Governor got a temperance bee in his bonnet? Run your guy against him and rig the election. And one doesn’t even need to imagine what could go on if a case actually went to court.

Banning alcohol ridiculed the state for another reason; if everyone’s doing something, how do you stop them? Well, for one, you overburden the system, and secondly, you don’t ever really stop them, despite overburdening the system. Suddenly, it became apparent just how ineffective the law was.

Prohibition also changed the way America (and probably the whole of the western world, by influence) drank. There’s a reason why you associate gin and bourbon with bootlegging rather than any other liquors: cheap to produce, and needing no time to age, the simple fact is that the high alcohol content of spirits makes them the ideal liquor to smuggle. And if you’re only buying hard liquor, you’re going to need to invent better ways to mix it, hence why the so-called ‘Roaring Twenties’ are characterized by the cocktail. It’s mildly ironic that it is thanks to the temperance movement that we all drink cocktails now.

Of course, the attitude to drinking in the US is still somewhat uptight — you can drive at 16, but only drink at 21. The result of this is the same now as it was in the 20s: more smoking. Tobacco consumption nearly tripled under Prohibition, and college students in the States still smoke far more than their British counterparts.

It’s hard to imagine an America without the effects of the temperance campaigners. Still, it wasn’t all bad. As the famous humourist Will Rogers said, “prohibition is better than no liquor at all”.

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