I watched Ken Burns’ Prohibition a few months ago, and ever since, I’ve been trying to write a post about it. It’s an excellent documentary.
Burns, as far as I can tell, is the kind of progressive (not a radical) whose white guilt doesn’t run too deep and whose progressivism is honestly built on idealism rather than resentment. However, he is still a progressive. I was therefore surprised at the honesty of Prohibition, which makes it perfectly clear that the 18th amendment came from the same progressive furor that brought us abolition and women’s suffrage.
Sailer points out in today’s Taki column that the coupling of women’s suffrage and prohibition seems odd to us today. If we expand the coupling to a trifecta—women’s suffrage, prohibition, abolition—the one in the middle seems even more out of place. If we expand it even further—women’s suffrage, prohibition, abolition, federal income tax, democratic election of senators, labor laws—then we have the pantheon of the early progressive religion. But only one of them failed. And today, ironically, prohibition, the progressive failure, stands in many people’s minds as the example par excellence of inappropriate (read: conservative) federal intrusion into local life. That abolition, federal income tax, labor laws, or women’s suffrage might likewise be examples of federal intrusions into local life is an insane right-wing suggestion.
Some cleric at Slate writes:
This is one of the first strange flecks of gray in this story. The proponents of Prohibition were primarily progressives—and some of the most admirable people in American history, from Susan B. Anthony to Frederick Douglass to Eugene V. Debs.
What? Huh? An amendment designed to engineer a utopian society, to tell an entire nation how to conduct itself, was a progressive amendment? The hell you say!
But Burns’ documentary makes the connection very explicit. It quotes many famous progressives—from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Frederick Douglass—for their support of prohibition. Burns also draws the same point drawn obliquely by Sailer in today’s article: prohibition was the brainchild of small-town northern WASPs (i.e., Yankees) with nothing better to do:
[Mencken] advocated aristocratic disdain of the democratic ethos of the small-town America that had produced William Jennings Bryan, supporter of women’s suffrage and Prohibition . . .
Some people might want to place the eruption of an explicit American progressivism in the 1960s. But Prohibition argues that it should be placed at the turn of the 20th century. Well, yes—that was, after all, the Progressive Era. As I’ve noted elsewhere, there are two types of progressive beliefs in the West: the belief in moral progress, and the belief in technological progress. We should not conflate the two beliefs. Speaking morally, then, the fruit of the American Progressive Era is quite rotten: I give you the 16th Amendment (collection of federal income tax), the 17th Amendment (the final nail in the coffin of state sovereignty), the 18th Amendment (prohibition!), and the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage).
Rotten, yes, but all part of the same progressive cornucopia. If the 18th amendment does not today seem to belong, it is a testament to leftist propaganda that it seems wrongly placed. Prohibition has been completely flushed down the memory hole. Ask any man on the street in 2013 whether the national prohibition of alcohol was a conservative or a progressive goal, he will probably say “conservative.” Burns’ documentary sets the record straight, and Steve’s article reiterates the point.
Like the idea of the ‘Cathedral,’ the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be re-purposed as a piece of neoreactionary agitprop. Wherever possible, we need to use it as the example par excellence of . . . progressivism. No one likes Prohibition. It would thus benefit the right to put it back where it belongs: in the arms of the Left. Maybe the smell from this rotting piece of legislation will start to rub off on everything else in the Progressive fruit basket.