Friday, February 12, 2016

#1: The War on Alcohol

This isn't actually the first book I've read this year (though it's the first book that truly qualifies for this project, for reasons I might get into in a separate post).

Anyway. The War on Alcohol is Lisa McGirr's examination of Prohibition. It's less a straight history than a correlation of history to contemporary events. McGirr argues—persuasively—that Prohibition is the real cause of many aspects of modern-day American society, from the war on drugs to the composition of the major political parties to the prison-industrial complex.

Quite a lot of this was revelatory for me. I hadn't realized, for example, the degree to which Prohibition was a class war or a race war. Saloons were often the gathering places for blue-collar laborers, many of whom were recent immigrants, so big business saw a union-busting benefit in backing prohibitionary measures. Enforcement hit the poor as disproportionately as drug-law enforcement does today; some state laws even had deliberate loopholes to protect the private stashes of the well-to-do. McGirr mentions that when reformers surveyed the range of problems in poor areas, it was far easier to blame alcohol as the cause of those evils than it was to actually address poverty—which sounds depressingly familiar. Dry activists painted a melodramatic picture of a crime wave, but it was the Volstead Act that actually created the jump in crime, by criminalizing behaviors that had previously been acceptable. And for some reason my high school textbooks* omitted the fact that many municipalities actually paid Klansmen as vigilante enforcers of dry laws. Dry enforcement was beyond the means of a number of police departments, so cities and counties offered financial rewards to citizens who caught lawbreakers. In some cases that led to open partnerships between the police department, the churches, and the local Klavern. (I'm pretty sure that's a script waiting to be written.)

The book's title is not coincidental. Growing up during the Reagan war on drugs, I never knew that the philosophies underpinning that movement had their origins in Prohibition: again, the punishing of the poor for a symptom of poverty; the expectation that the federal government should interfere in private behavior; the assumption that crime was a vast societal problem; the imposition of an evangelical Protestant ethos on a pluralistic society. The current overcrowding of prisons and the execrable school-to-prison pipeline—both originated with Prohibition.

McGirr also discusses a central paradox of American society, one it had never occurred to me to examine:
Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have long noted the peculiar evolution of the modern American state, especially compared to modern western European states. The United States government is heavy on coercion, light on welfare. The American national state is both unique and contradictory—at once weak but interventionist, underdeveloped yet coercive. Not surprisingly, those paradoxical strains contributed to the oft-remarked love-hate relationship so many Americans have with their national government—at once proudly patriotic and fearful of Washington.

McGirr breaks down her discussion into different aspects of society, devoting chapters to sexual mores, race, commerce, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the penal state. It's an effective structure. The prose, unfortunately, is sometimes lumpen, with adverbs in distractingly odd places, faulty parallel structure, and wonky lists (one of which creates the construction "have gave"). Finishing the book took me longer than I'd expected, given the compelling subject: I kept stopping to make mental edits. This is an occupational hazard, though, and it's possible that non-editors won't be bothered by these quibbles of wording. And the history here really deserves to be read.

*Does this mean this book counts as one I should have read in high school? Not sure. But at least one of the books I'm not counting does qualify, so...


  1. A+ review that makes me really want to read this book. I don't know much about Prohibition but this sounds like a very compelling argument for how it has shaped modern life. What made you want to read this book?

    1. I didn't know it existed until my dad gave it to me for Christmas. It's such an interesting take on the subject that I was pretty much hooked from the moment I looked at the inside flap.

  2. I have a book about Prohibition on my list as well, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent. Your review makes me all the more excited to dive into it. I think I'll add it to the list and make some comparisons between the two accounts.