Ken Burns' 'Prohibition' Recalls A Law So Strict It Was (Tee)totally Doomed | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Ken Burns' 'Prohibition' Recalls A Law So Strict It Was (Tee)totally Doomed

Play associated audio

"We were awash in alcohol in the 19th century," says documentarian Ken Burns in a discussion with Audie Cornish on Weekend Edition Sunday. Burns' Prohibition, beginning Sunday night on PBS, serves as the follow-up to his past series on topics as diverse as the Civil War, Jazz, the National Park system, and baseball.

The early installments of Prohibition paint the America that got itself into Prohibition as a nation that indeed had a massive drinking habit — several times as much alcohol as we consume now. That habit, Burns says, led to a temperance movement initially intended to encourage people to drink less, not nothing. But its goals gradually became more and more extreme until the law that ultimately passed to enforce Prohibition was far stricter than many had intended — so strict that it could not stand.

At the same time, the history of Prohibition is a history of exceptions and the observation of a law in the breach. Religious congregations that were permitted to serve sacramental alcohol saw their numbers swell; physicians prescribed booze for medicinal purposes.

Perhaps most notably, Burns says the fallout from a law doomed to be ignored included the birth of modern organized crime. There was so much money to be made from the inevitability of illegal drinking that it attracted far more sophisticated criminal enterprises than were created — or really needed — before. Organized crime was, he says, "the great unintended consequence."

Anyone who doubts the openness with which Prohibition was defied by the population meant to be ruled by it need only consider what is clearly Burns' favorite piece of trivia from the time: At one point, what was supposed to be a dry nation had become the number one importer of cocktail shakers.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

NPR

MacArthur Fellow Terrance Hayes: Poems Are Music, Language Our Instrument

Hayes, a professor of writing at the University of Pittsburgh, was recognized for "reflecting on race, gender, and family in works that seamlessly encompass both the historical and the personal."
NPR

Diet Soda May Alter Our Gut Microbes And The Risk Of Diabetes

There's a new wrinkle to the old debate over diet soda: Artificial sweeteners may alter our microbiomes. And for some, this may raise blood sugar levels and set the stage for diabetes.
NPR

House Passes Bill That Authorizes Arming Syrian Rebels

Even though it was backed by both party leaders, the vote split politicians within their own ranks. The final tally on the narrow military measure was 273 to 156.
NPR

3.7 Million Comments Later, Here's Where Net Neutrality Stands

A proposal about how to maintain unfettered access to Internet content drew a bigger public response than any single issue in the Federal Communication Commission's history. What's next?

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.