Saturday, October 8, 2011

Prohibition Disappointment

As Homer once said, "Prohibition? They tried it in the movies and it never worked."

OK, I know it's probably quibbling, but I do have a bone to pick with Ken Burns' otherwise excellent documentary, Prohibition, which Crusty Old Dean has been watching in bits and pieces over the past week or so.

First of all, despite some concerns I'll mention below, COD is in general quite pleased with Burns' treatment of the Temperance movement and Prohibition. COD teaches church history in addition to being a fabled blogger admired by literally quarter of a score of admirers. As part of this, in surveys of American Church History, the role of Christian denominations and church related organizations in the temperance movements must needs be covered. This usually results in snickering and eye-rolling by many students, scoffing at the pious moralists who dared to tell others what they should do. COD tries, as Burns does admirably, in pointing out the way in which the temperance movement was part of the larger movement for a greater role for women in society. Temperance and Suffrage, for instance, went hand in hand in many places. Likewise there is a social justice component: in a society which didn't have restraining orders and divorce and child custody, where women had next to no legal standing apart from their husbands, alcoholism was a destructive and devastating part of many women's day to day lives.

COD is disappointed, though, with some of the way in which religious organizations are characterized in Burns' documentary. The Women's Christian Temperance Union (known by the acronym WCTU; COD delights in a good acronym) in particular is presented as a somewhat nefarious organization, infiltrating public schools to have classes in temperance taught, and mobilizing "propaganda" machines to spread their message. There are two problems with this.

One is the reality, which is probably shocking to our 21st century ears, that religious organizations were much more intertwined in many aspects of American society in the 19th and even early 20th centuries than they are today. Bible reading and prayers in public schools was commonplace. The was strong influence of churches in higher education (the percentage of colleges with clergymen as presidents was extraordinarily high), health care (religious hospitals far outnumbering public ones), and other areas. Religious organizations also had a place in the public school system: COD is stunned that Burns seems unaware that it was not until 1948 that the Supreme Court banned the practice of outside persons offering religious instruction in public schools. By offering instruction in the public schools, which Burns seems most offended by, the WCTU was in essence doing the same things Roman Catholics, Mormons, Protestants, and other organizations were doing in the 19th century. The WCTU wasn't being nefarious in getting their foot in the door of public schools; it's what organizations did back then.

Disclaimer: COD certainly does not support Prohibition. I am, in fact, drinking while blogging. COD will also take sponsorships from any liquor company wanting to sponsor this: "COD, Brought to You By Maker's Mark" has a nice ring to it.

OK, another quibble is the repeated emphasis on the "propaganda" of the WCTU and the Anti Saloon League. Again, COD is puzzled by singling out these organizations as somehow guilty of the perfidy of exaggeration. Exaggeration, melodrama, and hyperbole were part of the lexicon of the 1800s and 1900s. Certainly the WCTU exaggerated at times the destructive nature of drinking of alcohol -- then again, were there not also outlandish charges made against labor organizers like the IWW? Did not the anti-temperance movement exaggerate the medicinal benefits of alcohol? Burns himself notes the propaganda department of the US Government, churning out lurid anti-German slanders with menacing pictures of "Huns" above calls to buy war bonds. We could go on; exaggeration was part of the discourse of the era. Yet the WCTU seems singled out in particular as being luridly disingenuous.

COD finds these two components -- singling out the WCTU for doing things that other organizations did, and citing them for being misleading and propagandistic -- taken together, to be troubling. COD fears that Burns is subtly portraying the temperance movement as, yet again, another bunch of religious fanatics trying to foist their views upon the rest of society. (His opening quote for the first episode is the Mark Twain quote about Nothing so needs reforming as other people's habits. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky." When COD first heard of Burns' Prohibition documentary, he wondered if there would be efforts to draw parallels, perhaps, to the current battle against illegal drugs. There are so many parallels -- from Mr Walgreen growing his business through "medicinal" alcohol prescriptions to the medical marijuana dispensaries in many states to the futile efforts at law enforcement to the way in which gang violence can reduce a society to lawlessness and anarchy (Chicago/Mexico?). Yet the opening episode, beginning with the Twain quote, struck a disturbing note for COD: would Burns' be looking for a parallel from Prohibition regarding the role of religion and religious organizations in society? If some internet message boards are to be believed (COD does not frequent them, but did in preparation this blog post, and has come away from the experience fearing for the Republic), this is precisely the message people are drawing. Here's a link to HuffPo where someone draws a straight line from the fanatics of the Prohibition debate to the fanatics of today:

COD fears were confirmed by Burns himself. As if to put a point on this, Burns has Pete Hamill (Aside: Why is Pete Hamill a talking head on a program about prohibition? Other than having written a notable memoir about his own struggles with alcohol, what, exactly, makes Hamill an authority on this subject? Is Burns looking for some aged, craggy, wise old man whose every word we should hang on, as he did with Shelby Foote in his civil war documentary, or Buck O'Neill in "Baseball"?) opine, "A bunch of evangelical Christians outlawed what Jesus did turning water into wine." This is staggeringly simplistic and runs the risk of undoing the care in which Burns treats other elements of the history of Prohibition.

The main problem with Hamill's sound byte is that again it blithely blames "evangelical" Christians. Really? What kind of evangelicals? Pre-millenial or post-millenial dispensationalists? Fundamentalist or non-Fundamentalist? Does this includes charismatic evangelicals? It also ignores the historical fact that many people opposed alcohol for different reasons. It also ignores the fact that non-evangelical Christians organized to affect changes in society, yet this, apparently, is not something which warrants any concern or discussion. The social gospel movement arose in Protestant churches in the late 1800s and early 1900s and allied itself with many aspects of the Populist, Progressive, and Labor movements. Would Burns presume the Red Cross to be a dastardly attempt of religious organization to corner the health care system? Simply disagreeing with one group's goal does not invalidate their right to organize and advocate for that goal. It also ignores that many groups have advocated for things we would find to be equally objectionable -- for instance, forced sterilization of "imbeciles."

COD admits having a larger bone to pick. COD sees this as part of a larger problem: people reading back the disgust and disagreements many have with the religious right in this country at this time into their view of religion at all times and in all places.

COD was outraged in a similar vein many years ago when he saw Spielberg's film "Amistad," which tells the story of Africans who were captured and for the slave trade, who overtook their slave ship, and landed off the shore of Connecticut, sparking a legal battle for their freedom. What shocked COD was the simplistic way Spielberg presented religious abolitionists. There is an appearance in the film of some abolitionists, whose response to the situation of the Amistad captives is to kneel and pray for the slaves outside their prison. This was such a ludicrously inaccurate portrayal that COD burst out laughing in the theater, prompting several folks who were being properly indignant in their reaction of those religious folks on screen briefly to take a break from their indignation and glare at him.

The fact is that abolitionists were actively involved involved in the plight of the Amistad captives. Members of Christian churches were intimately connected with the legal battle for the kidnapped Africans, including raising money for their legal defense. Attorneys who were members of New Haven churches offered their services gratis. Reducing Christian abolitionists to pious do-gooders who do nothing except praying for the slaves was simultaneously insulting and ignorant of historical fact. It does, however, play on the general impression in the culture that religious persons are hypocritical and sanctimonious, whose only response is prayer when action was needed.

Disclaimers: there certainly are such people; COD disagrees with many goals advocated by lots of his fellow Christians. COD is unavowedly, unabashedly, and proudly liberal, and presided at his first same sex blessing in 1995. However, I definitely believe because I may be revolted and disagree strongly with someone else's advocacy (within the bounds of the law, naturally), this does not invalidate their freedom of speech, expression, and right to organize.

Back to Spielberg and Burns: it's perfectly OK to take umbrage with the hypocrisy and fanaticism of some religious persons and organizations. But to assume all Christians act one way and have done so throughout history is as bigoted as assuming all black people act one way and have acted that way for hundreds of years.

Overall, Burns' documentary finally gives Prohibition the treatment it deserves, unraveling an important and oft overlooked and caricatured time in American history. This is why his overtly pejorative portrayal of religious organizations is disconcerting, because it undercuts the overall excellence of the documentary. The reality is that societies, cultures, and nations get caught up in phenomena that may be perplexing generations later: for example, in the 1950s lobotomies became extraordinarily common. Dismissing this phenomena (e.g. Prohibition as the work of religious fanatics, or lobotomies as the result of people who don't know as much about medicine as we got sixty years later) runs the risk of turning history into an extension of our current beliefs and prejudices, rather than trying to find out why these things happened in the first place.

Think I'm overacting? How would you feel if a conservative filmmaker making a documentary on Susan B. Anthony portrayed her as a religious fanatic (she was an active member of a Unitarian Church) who, on the basis of her beliefs, mounted a relentless effort to foist her views on a country which repeatedly voted down proposals to enact women's suffrage?

Thought so.

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