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Archive for March 14th, 2012

There would be no literature, no art, no music, no statesmanship if we relied on the prohibitionist for works of genius.  -  Clarence Darrow

I’ve written on a number of occasions about the origins of modern prohibitionist rhetoric in the second half of the 19th century, and explained how the “white slavery” panic (as “human trafficking” was called then) arose from a combination of racism, xenophobic fears of immigration and the urge to impose Protestant Christian ideas of morality (including alcohol prohibition) on everyone.  As I wrote in “Rooted in Racism”, “The First World War gave Europeans something real to worry about, but the panic continued in the United States until the Great Depression served the same function.”  I thought it might be instructive to take a look at one of the larger prohibitionist organizations of the period, which at its height in the early ‘20s boasted over 4 million members, but fell to 30,000 by 1930.  Its story not only demonstrates the mentality of prohibitionists, but presents cause for optimism in the way that this once-powerful movement fell rapidly into disrepute and eventually became nothing more than a marginalized group of social pariahs no reasonable person would want to be associated with.

The organization was founded in 1915, drawing its inspiration from a similar (but long defunct) one which operated for a while in the 1860s.  Its members were overwhelmingly white Anglo-Saxon, Germanic and Scandinavian Protestants who felt great anxiety over increasing immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe, whose inhabitants they viewed as lazy and sexually depraved; they therefore wanted tighter immigration controls in general, but were especially concerned with protecting women and girls from rape and “white slavery”.  Indeed, most of the original founders were members of a group dedicated to demanding “justice” for Mary Phagan, a young woman who had been raped and murdered (allegedly by a Jewish businessman named Leo Frank).  The group advertised itself as protector of the home and womanhood, and grew at an astonishing pace in the next five years, driven by sensationalized media coverage and reports that it had been endorsed by President Woodrow Wilson.  Though chapters sprang up all over the US (and to a lesser extent Canada), it was primarily an urban movement which had its greatest political power in Indiana and its most rapid growth in Detroit, Dayton, Dallas and Atlanta.

All prohibitionist groups attempt to exercise social control by lobbying politicians to make more repressive laws and encouraging more aggressive enforcement of existing laws.  This one was no exception; it backed sympathetic politicians, assisted police in enforcing morality laws (just as the Hunt Alternatives Fund does today), and spied on violators of alcohol prohibition, then bullied cops into arresting them and courts into prosecuting them (just as “Big Sister” does to Icelandic punters).  It released propaganda to support its causes, and found a number of allies in the media who were willing to disseminate it via newspapers and radio.  Many people joined the crusade due to this hype, and though a large proportion of them soon left when they discovered it wasn’t to their liking, there were enough new recruits to replace those lost to attrition.

Eventually, though, the moral panic which energized the organization faded as all moral panics must; its members became increasingly desperate for attention and hungry for the power they felt slipping through their fingers.  In 1927 some chapters began stepping outside the law to enforce their agenda, and the media rapidly turned against them.  Newspaper editor Grover C. Hall wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials attacking the once-popular mass movement for what he called its “racial and religious intolerance”; other papers followed suit, and by 1930 it was all but gone.  Not completely, though; in fact, it’s managed to hold on to the present day, and still has about 6000 members.  I’m sure most of you have even heard of it; its name is taken from the Greek word for “circle”, kuklos.  It’s called the Ku Klux Klan.

One Year Ago Today

Man’s Inhumanity To Whores” presents examples of stigmatization of prostitutes to demonstrate how our mistreatment harms all women.

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