Home // 2010 // December

‘Last Call’ delves into Prohibition — and the long hangover it left behind

I’m reading Last Call by Daniel Okrent, an interesting history of the rise of the prohibitionist movement in the 19th century, its culmination in the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act, and the inevitable (and gratifying) failure of the once-popular effort to ban the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. The book is of special interest to me not only because of my strong thirst for bourbon, red wine, microbrews, port, gin and, in a pinch, Sterno squeezed through a handkerchief, but also because I’ve long believed that, with all due respect to the folks obsessed by the Civil War/War Between the States/War to Fuel All Overwrought Historical Novels, Prohibition was the defining moment in terms of a shift in the relationship between individuals and the state in this country.

Among the interesting details supplied by Okrent’s book is the degree to which prohibitionism intermingled with, energized, and was powered by connections with other “reform” movements. Specifically, the early “temperance” movement overlapped with abolitionism, then developed major ties to the women’s suffrage movement — to the point that it’s credited with making early feminism politically viable. Religious fundamentalism, unsurprisingly, played a huge role along the way — prohibitionism was overtly a Protestant-Christian eruption, with the Anti-Saloon League calling itself “the church in action against the saloon.” Nativism, of course, figured in the movement against alcohol, with reaction to hard-drinking Catholic and Jewish immigrants (the myth possibly not out-stripping the reality) fueling much of the desire to ban saloons, beer, booze and fun; Frances Willard, long-time leader of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, favored immigration restrictions on “the scum of the Old World.”

What is new to me (though it makes sense) was the degree to which then-new brands of ideological collectivism played a role. Willard, who often referred (approvingly) to her followers as “Protestant nuns,” was not by any means the only prohibitionist to identify as a “Christian socialist.” The WCTU and the Prohibition Party endorsed a grab-bag of statist policies, including nationalization of major industries.

Prohibitionists, by and large, didn’t seem to be huge fans of sex, either. No surprise, really.

Basically, aside from women’s suffrage (abolitionists may have often been anti-alcohol, but they prevailed on their on merits), prohibitionism was a major player up in a mutually reinforcing whirlwind of statism and intolerance that has done vast damage to the cause of personal freedom and limited government in the United States. Several seemingly unrelated political/cultural tendencies gained energy from one another and went on to transform the country in very important ways.

I haven’t finished Last Call, but it’s already worthy of recommendation. And it will, almost certainly, drive you to drink.

Wikileaks battle tests state vs. individual power on the Internet

I can’t be the only person who grins every time I hear that Wikileaks has released yet another batch of U.S. diplomatic cables as an in-your-face to the governments trying to shut the organization down. Or beams as the government leans on corporations to cut ties to the organization, only to see one Website turn into 1,000 (you, too, can mirror Wikileaks). And I’m sure I’m not alone in endorsing Dilbert-creator Scott Adams’s sentiment that, “The one thing I know for sure is that I’m a fan of the hackers who are dispensing vigilante justice.” Those are the hackers targeting the government agencies and their allied corporate partners who have been trying to isolate Wikileaks, of course.

It’s not that Wikileaks or its creator, Julian Assange are perfect. Assange seems to seek notoriety — though, would any other type of person take on this job? And, as Adams also noted in his blog, the revelation that the much ballyhooed sex charges against Assange are apparently rooted in weird Swedish laws about condom use and jealousy over bed-hopping “turned Assange from a man-whore publicity hound into Gandhi.”

Well, maybe not “Gandhi,” but the charges look like a bullshit effort to discredit the man.

The continuing survival of Wikileaks and its championing by the pro-information-freedom Anonymous hacker group are an ongoing demonstration of the ability of decentralized organizations and grassroots movements to not only prevail against governments, but even to retaliate against state agencies. As the Washington Post notes, “WikiLeaks is now stronger than ever, at least as measured by its ability to publish online… the Web site’s resilience in the face of repeated setbacks has underscored a lesson already absorbed by more repressive governments that have tried to control the Internet: It is nearly impossible to do.”

Which means that all the Internet evangelists who hoped new online tools would help close the power gap between individuals and governments are now seeing some vindication.

Wikileaks apparently not welcome around these parts

I don’t really fear that the apparent abandonment of Wikileaks by U.S.-based host Amazon.com — presumably under government pressure — really means the end of the excellent anti-state, whistle-blower organization. Truthfully, the sudden denial of hosting services seems like a petulant playground kick in a world of potential alternatives, many of them far beyond the reach of embarrassed American politicians (apparently, the group moved back to Sweden, according to NPR).

Isn’t that telling, though? Governments are reduced to symbolically shuttering Websites for a few days, leaving the actual whistle-blowers and their desire to expose information otherwise untouched. Supposedly, Julian Assange and company have a stash of bank-related documents slated for their next expose. In the unlikely event that they can’t get the Website up and running again, what’s to stop them from zipping and emailing the data to media organizations and bloggers, just as they did the U.S. diplomatic cables? Or I suppose they could go so far as to print the juicy data or save it to thumb drives and physically hand it to people likely to spread the information further.

Ultimately, Wikileaks is about the desire to expose compromising secrets, not about maintaining Websites. And Wikileaks is just one incarnation of that push for transparency — taking the Website, the organization or its leader out of the picture only shifts the action elsewhere.

If you don’t like it, don’t fly

The police-state fan boys are quick to tell us that if we don’t like the new and ever-more intrusive security measures at airports, we should just stay on the ground. What they don’t add is that the be-gloved objects of their crushes aren’t content to confine their peeping and groping to the realm of air travel — they want to take the show on the road. Check out the news report below on a checkpoint set up at a Tampa Greyhound bus station by TSA, Border Patrol and local police.

I’ve been stopped at Border Patrol checkpoints within that magic 100-mile Constitution-free zone that runs around the perimeter of the United States, so I suspect that the same Constitutional leeway is being used to justify the Tampa incident — meaning that you might not (yet) encounter such checkpoints in the heartland. But does anybody doubt that it’s only a matter of time?