Beware of purity workers [who are]…ready to accept and endorse any amount of coercive and degrading treatment of their fellow creatures in the fatuous belief that you can oblige human beings to be moral by force. – Josephine Butler
Eighty years ago today, a so-called “Noble Experiment” that was anything but was forcibly shut down. At exactly 4:31 PM Eastern Time on December 5th, 1933, the 21st Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, repealing the 18th Amendment and thus putting an end to a massive social engineering effort which cost the United States over $1 billion (over $13 billion in today’s money) and resulted in the imprisonment, impoverishment and death of over 100,000 Americans. But despite the enormous economic and social costs (clogged courts, the rise of large-scale organized crime, widespread disrespect for all law, warfare in the streets and the birth of the modern police state, to name but a few), prohibitionists fought tooth and nail to prevent the dismantling of their mad scheme. Furthermore, politicians learned the wrong lesson from the experience: not “prohibition doesn’t work and has catastrophic effects on society,” but rather “start small and then slowly ratchet up the number and popularity of banned substances and behaviors, and spread prohibition across many bureaucratic regulations instead of investing it in one easily-targeted law.”
I’ve often discussed the nearly-exact resemblance between “sex trafficking” hysteria and “white slavery” hysteria; I’ve also compared the rhetoric of sex work prohibitionists to that of drug prohibitionists, and I won’t insult your intelligence by presuming any of y’all haven’t recognized the resemblance between alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition. But even though I’ve often said “All prohibitionism is the same,” I wonder if y’all have ever given any thought to how much the same the various colors of prohibition are. Today I’m going to share a few facts about the capital-P Prohibition whose end we recognize today; I won’t waste my time and yours in pointing out the modern parallels, because they really are that obvious an exercise in plus ça change.
To prohibitionists, human rights, happiness and even life are subsidiary to “sending a message”, and the cost of that message can never be too great. Various penalties proposed for the “crime” of drinking included torture, whipping, branding, imprisonment in Alaskan concentration camps, sterilization, enforced celibacy and even execution; some wanted the punishments applied to drinkers’ children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. Others preferred to execute drinkers stealthily by releasing poisoned alcohol through undercover agents posing as bootleggers; they understood that the death toll could be in the hundreds of thousands, but declared that damage a “price worth paying” for an alcohol-free society. And though that plan was not carried out, the government did intentionally poison industrial alcohol in a failed attempt to keep people from drinking it; over 10,000 people died as a result. Police and G-men raided homes and businesses (often without warrant), seized or destroyed property (including cash, vehicles and buildings), murdered citizens and even crossed into Canada for their “operations”. Nor were these depredations limited to government actors; die-hard prohibitionists formed groups to “assist” enforcement by spying on others, ratting them out to the police and even conducting raids on their own.
Since the very real threat of official violence was still not enough to stop Americans from imbibing, prohibitionists mounted a campaign of disinformation, sometimes producing bogus studies to “prove” their dogma. They claimed that any amount of drinking dramatically increased the chance of dying from edema, and that habitual drunks often died of spontaneous combustion. Drinking mothers (or even fathers) supposedly produced babies who were born addicted, and even the smell of alcohol was said to cause birth defects; some claimed these birth defects were inheritable, thus affecting multiple generations. Children were subjected to presentations “proving” that alcohol caused severe brain damage. The “anti-saloon” crowd also indulged in historical revisionism, censoring, reinterpreting or even retranslating documents (especially the Bible) to remove references to wine or other forms of alcohol, and altering pictures such as the one above (here’s the 1848 original) to retroactively turn historical figures into teetotalers.
The soi-disant Progressives wanted to remake society along “scientific” lines, to impose their idea of clockwork “perfection” on the human race; eugenics was a large part of this, as should be evident in the suggestion that “undesirables” be sterilized or their children executed with them. But though the Nazis gave eugenics such a bad name it was eliminated from “progressive” philosophy, the rest of its catechism is virtually untouched; neither Prohibition nor the four-decade “War on Drugs” has cured the adherents of that revolting 19th-century cult of their dedication to the idea that, as Butler put it, “any amount of coercive and degrading treatment” of peaceful citizens is acceptable in order to force them to obey the cultists’ perverse notions of morality.