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March 2007
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Speaking of oblivious…

Over at the WSJ Opinion Journal today, there is a book review by Russ Smith of Michael A. Lerner’s “Dry Manhattan” — a book that “concentrates on New York City in the Prohibition years.
What caught my attention was the opening paragraph of the review:

It’s nearly impossible to read about America’s failed attempt to outlaw the sale and consumption of alcohol in the 1920s without drawing parallels to modern “nanny state” regulations. No, we experience nothing as draconian as dryness-by-decree, but smoking restrictions, trans-fat bans and crackdowns on “noise pollution”–to mention only a few of today’s more grating attempts to dictate personal conduct–are useful reminders of a hovering paternalism in American life, a killjoy impulse often indulged in the name of public virtue.

Trans-fat and noise pollution? What about marijuana? “Nothing as draconian as dryness-by-decree”? Excuse me, Russ — have you not heard of Prohibition 2: the War on Drugs?
What makes this omission by Russ Smith even more astonishing is the fact that the rest of the article is a treasure trove of hit-you-over-the-head parallels between alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition (just without mentioning the drug prohibition part).

“When the Progressive and dry movements converged in the 1910s, the xenophobia and nativism of both movements inevitably came to the surface,” Mr. Lerner writes. “As the dry lobby gained momentum, it staked its success on its ability to depict foreigners, Catholics, Jews, and city dwellers as threats to everything genuinely American.” To buttress his case, Mr. Lerner cites William Johnson of the Anti-Saloon League, who decried Germans because they “eat like gluttons and drink like swine.” A pamphlet from the dry-allied Progressives, the author tells us, referred to New York City’s Italians as “Dagos, who drink excessively, live in a state of filth and use the knife on slightest provocation.”

Sound familiar? Substitute Mexicans and blacks and you have marijuana prohibition.

The city’s police officers often took bribes from owners of retro-fitted saloons and speakeasies; judges resented the backlog of court cases for liquor violations. Contrary to the hopes of reformers, arrests for public intoxication in New York increased during Prohibition, as did hospital admissions for alcoholism.

Hello, Russ. See it yet?

In the early years of the ban, affluent New Yorkers enjoyed the risk of flirting with crime and relished “slumming” in other parts of the city, such as Harlem, where they’d never been before. […]
Mr. Lerner is at his best when describing the inherent class discrimination of the dry movement. Although the well-off could skirt the law by bribe or influence, the masses of immigrants and working-class citizens could not. Before the ban was enacted, saloons were often the center of immigrant activities, places where foreign-born laborers congregated, catching up with friends, cashing checks, picking up English phrases, and assimilating into the city’s working and popular culture while imbibing beer, wine or whiskey.
“As the dry experiment took shape in the early 1920s,” Mr. Lerner notes, “the city’s Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants, its Catholics and Jews, and the masses of other ethnic Americans who populated New York found that the main objective of the dry lobby was to police the habits of the poor, the foreign-born and the working class.”

Wow. Talk about dj vu.

As the decade progressed, Prohibition’s failure to accomplish much besides lending an iffy quality to the nation’s liquor supplies turned the law into something of a joke…

I give up.
This just goes to show, I believe, that we have to keep hammering the “Prohibition” label for the drug war.

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