Thursday, September 5, 2013

Day Two Hundred and Forty-eight - Ken Burns: Prohibition, Episode 1, "Sometimes it's just a day for a little History."

Ken Burns documentaries are pretty much the Gold Standard of educational specials, I think. For what has to be over 25 years, he and his crew of dedicated, methodical researchers, scholars, and voice actors have put together so many quality programs focusing on key elements of American history. From Baseball to the Civil War to Prohibition, I have always found Burns' documentaries to be tremendously interesting.

Sadly, I think many of my classmates in the 80's and 90's used those in-class showings to sleep.

Narrated by Peter Coyote and featuring character readings by the likes of Sam Waterston, Patricia Clarkson, Jeremy Irons, Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Blythe Danner, Oliver Platt, and so on, Prohibition's first episode covers the historical beginnings of the Temperance movement. Starting with the cultural shift and wave of alcoholism and public drunkenness caused by the switch from low-percentage by volume ciders and beers to high-proof distilled liquors like whiskey and rum, Temperance began with small town outrage and a religious push back by Protestant preachers against the mostly Catholic immigrants and their demon drink.

Both the Women's Crusade and Carrie Nation with her hatchet had stirring movements that eventually died down after their initial success... and as movements rose and fell, a new industry was booming thanks to German immigrants creating large brewing companies and forming lobbying groups to help them fend off the somewhat sporadic and spontaneous attacks by the morally outraged country women.

The Free Lunch was created by saloons and billiard halls where just that were served (later spawning the counter saying "TANSTAAFL" or "There ain't no such thing as a Free Lunch"), replete with salty meats and cheeses meant to entice thirst from men looking for a meal gratis, almost guaranteeing sales of alcohol.

The brewers attempts at fending off Temperance didn't last forever, though, as groups became more organized and politically savvy. With the antics of the Anti-Saloon League, I'm reminded quite a bit the Tea Party and other divisive movements in history and its tactics to pressure using "with us or against us" tactics. Politicians soon had to weigh the risks of being on the wrong side of the issue as voters were perfectly happy to show them the door if they didn't vote Dry.

It's hard to imagine that the Income Tax was the death knell for brewers and a victory for Temperance and Prohibition, but that's just what it was. It's also hard to imagine that World War One and anti-German sentiment helped destroy the beer garden and put the final nails in the coffin.

As an avid drinker, myself, I find myself almost misting with tears whenever I see the newsreel footage of protesters and G-men cracking kegs and smashing bottles, burning barrels and dismantling stills. It oddly hurts to witness this violence against property... almost as much as it does to see man hurting his fellow man. Maybe it's because I hate to see such waste. Maybe it's because an affront to one freedom is an affront to all. Either way, it's a personal subject for me.

This first episode covers pretty much everything up to the point of the passing of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, only barely hinting at the troubles to come during the proper years of Prohibition... the era of the romance of Chicago crime... gangsters and bootleggers, the tommy gun and the speakeasy. I look forward to completing the series and hope to do so soon, not getting distracted by other offerings in my queue.

If ever you wanted to learn just how deeply interconnected our history is in America in regards to alcohol, this documentary is for you.

Until tomorrow, Potatoes~

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