Prohibition, Then and Now

What do we remember about America’s thirteen-year war on alcohol at the end of the First World War? Hollywood reminds us of the glamor of both rum-runners and -drinkers, the psychopathic hubris of Al Capone, and the ingenuity and holy determination of the cops who chased them all.

We might remember the temperances ladies who called for the Eighteenth Amendment — many of them also suffragettes — threatening, “Lips that touch wine will never touch mine!,” and the jazz-hall music and roaring promiscuity that bit back at their “Noble Experiment.”

Finally, we might have a vague idea that Franklin Roosevelt, winning the White House amid Depression, brought beer back to the American people within weeks of his inauguration, ending what one reporter named the “fabulous farce!” of Prohibition.

But our guests Lisa McGirr and Khalil Gibran Muhammad want to remind us of what Prohibition left behind, including a new politics of Republican drys versus Democratic Wets; an empowered FBI, and a hyper-armed and vigilant police-and-prison establishment; an unprecedented population of white criminals who were pardoned and brought into the New Deal coalition — leaving blacks behind; and also a government ready and willing to regulate the little things of private leisure, from narcotics to sex when the need arose.

Fast forward forty years to the drug war, and Richard Nixon‘s warnings show an eerie similarity to the state’s leaders getting ready to take on alcohol. Nixon brought the logic of the Moynihan Report into the era of mass incarceration, and established a new criminal obsession with a deep racial bias. Jack Cole, former narcotics officer and co-founder of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, takes us inside the moment and the mindset.

Guest List
Lisa McGirr
Harvard historian and author of The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.
Khalil Gibran Muhammad
director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.
Jack Cole
ex-narcotics officer for the New Jersey State Police and co-founder of LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

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  • Cambridge Forecast


    First, a word on the prohibitions before Prohibition:

    The Eugene O’Neill play, “The Iceman Cometh” takes place, according to the stage
    directions, in a Raines Law hotel in 1912:

    1. Raines Law

    The Raines Law was passed on March 23, 1896, by the New York State Legislature. It was
    nominally a liquor tax, but its intention was to curb the consumption of alcohol by imposing regulations.

    “Among other provisions, it prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages on Sunday except in
    hotels. Most men worked a six-day week, and Sunday was the only full day for
    drinking at saloons. Under the law, however, hotels were allowed to serve liquor
    on Sunday, to guests only, if it was served during a meal or in the bedrooms of
    the hotel. State statutes allowed that any business was considered a hotel if
    it had 10 rooms for lodging and served sandwiches with its liquor. Saloons quickly found a loophole by adding small furnished bedrooms and applying for a hotel license. Dozens of
    “Raines law hotels,” often located directly above saloons, opened.

    As a contemporary source put it, “This offered a premium on the transformation of saloons
    into hotels with bedrooms and led to unlooked-for evils” (an increase in prostitution),
    as the rooms in many “Raines law hotels” were used mostly by
    prostitutes and unmarried couples. (In some cases these rooms may not even have
    been available at all; in a 1917 novel, the protagonist sees “a Raines Law
    hotel with awnings, indicating that it was not merely a blind to give a saloon
    a hotel license but was actually open for business.”)

    Jacob Riis wrote in 1902 of saloon keepers who mocked the law by setting out “brick
    sandwiches,” two pieces of bread with a brick in between, thus fulfilling
    the legal requirement of serving food. He also writes of altercation in a
    saloon where a customer attempted to eat a sandwich that the bartender had
    served just for show; “the police restored the sandwich to the bartender
    and made no arrests.”


    2. In Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby,
    the character of millionaire Jay Gatsby represents the extremes of 1920s wealth
    and decadence. Gatsby devotes his life to accumulating riches in order to
    attract the attention of his romantic obsession the lovely but spoiled Daisy

    This gives us the deep American “double helix,” still evident, of “earnings and yearnings.”

    Gatsby’s fortune is evident in the raucous parties he throws from his mansion on Long Island’s
    north shore.

    “At least once a fortnight a corps of
    caterers came down with several hundred feet of canvas and enough colored
    lights to make a Christmas tree of Gatsby’s enormous garden. On buffet tables,
    garnished with glistening hors d’oeuvre, spiced baked hams crowded against
    salads of harlequin designs and pastry pigs and turkeys bewitched to a dark
    gold. In the main hall a bar with a real brass rail was set up, and stocked
    with gins and liquors and with cordials so long forgotten that most of his
    female guests were too young to know one from the other.”

    F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

    Gatsby character represents “new money;” he’s
    a seemingly overnight success with no known ties to family wealth. It is
    heavily inferred that Gatsby earned his fortune, at least in part, through
    bootlegging. How else could he afford his lavish parties with bottomless
    cocktails to spare? Daisy’s husband Tom gives voice to these suspicions during
    a heated argument, when he accuses Gatsby and his business partner Meyer
    Wolfsheim of illegally selling liquor through the drug stores they own. This
    fictional subplot is based in fact. For a small fee, doctors would prescribe
    their patients whiskey for just about any ailment, and sometimes no ailment at
    all. Crooked pharmacists would even sell forged prescriptions to their
    customers. As for Gatsby’s partner Meyer Wolfsheim, a character described as
    the man behind fixing the 1919 World Series, he was clearly influenced by a
    real gangster named Arnold Rothstein.


    Tom Buchanan represents “reactionary modernism” with his racial obsessions:

    “It’s up to us (white people), who are the dominant race, to watch out or these other races will have control of things”

    “Civilisation is going to pieces”

    “If we don’t look out the white race will be — will be utterly submerged”

    Tom talks about a book that explains “coloured empires.” “It’s all scientific stuff; it’s been

    “Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”

    The twin colonizations of America are part of Tom Buchanon’s American “prohibition structure”:

    1. internally, the blacks.

    2. externally, American imperialism.

    “The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy” (1920), by Lothrop Stoddard, later republished in other titles, like “The Rising Tide of Color.”
    This book, discussed by Tom in “Gatsby” predicts the collapse of white world empire and colonialism because of the population growth among people not of the white race.
    The postulations constitute Stoddard’s scientific racism. He supports a eugenic separation of the “primary races” of the world.
    Tom Buchanan in “Gatsby” is a true believer.
    He also has apocalyptic visions of earth-sun crashes, evocative of his and America’s
    “paranoia structure.”

    In the background is of course the Scopes Monkey Trial with its collision between the “age of rocks” and the “Rock of Ages.”

    The brilliant ROS show confirms Nietzsche’s Aphorism 156, Chapter 4, “Beyond Good and Evil” which says:
    “Insanity is relative rare in individuals—but in groups, parties, nations and epochs it is the rule.”

    Apply Nietzsche’s apothegm to understand then and now, as per the ROS discussion.

    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    Excellent discussion connecting the dots from Prohibition to the Drug War. Nixon’s scandalous comment about going after blacks sticks in my brain as well as “moralism run amok” about both (include the anti-abortion crowd). Racism ( “over-targeting” blacks) Scandalous the numbers incarcerated. And finally the “prison industrial complex” the vested interests in keeping this system fed by the “drug war”: the privatization of prisons, those employed by it.

    The debate last night of course did not touch on this… except I heard that that Trump did say something about how we made a mess in the Middle East and spent trillions and should have spent that money at home. Was he taking a line from Bernie Sanders?

    Thank you…