Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

December 5th, 2008:

Rant: The Lesson We Haven't Learned

Prohibition of alcohol as a legal institution ended 75 years ago today. It was the second-worst thing that the United States has ever baked into its legal system. Slavery was far worse, of course, though slavery was not originally an American idea and came to us from far older cultures. Prohibition created the Mafia (see Colin Wilson’s The Criminal History of Mankind) and legitimized the sort of neighbor-against-neighbor suspicion and all-your-privacy-are-belong-to-us government overreaching that psychopathic idealism (in the person of Woodrow Wilson, the most evil man ever to hold the Presidency in the US) tried and failed to institutionalize earlier in the century.

Understanding Prohibition is tricky these days, and it took a long time for me to figure it out. It was a perfect storm of sorts, fed by the Industrial Revolution, the abject nastiness of big city life, and especially immigration. At the base of it, Prohibition was a cry of fury against the flood of Irish and southern European Catholic immigrants entering the country (legally) after 1880 or so. The lives of these people were uniformly and almost unimaginably miserable. Catholic immigrants were considered subhuman by mainstream Protestant Americans, who exploited them whenever opportunity allowed, and blocked their path into higher social classes by every means available, legal and otherwise. (My mother, the daughter of penniless Polish immigrants, said little about this, but what she did say was chilling.) It’s no surprise that immigrants took to drink. Cut off from their own birth cultures and living in a culture where Americans of (slightly) longer tenure actively and unapologetically hated them, they drank and drank wildly, sometimes drinking themselves to death. Immigrants were blamed for the coarsening of American life in every way, were condemned for not learning English, and for creating a criminal underclass. The weird stridency of Protestant anti-Catholicism (which still exists in some places, weirder than ever) pushed the movement over the top.

Prohibition gave us violence, police corruption, organized crime, and a justification for government intrusiveness that ultimately spawned the political division that gave us two Americas on the same soil: One feeling that government is the solution, the other that government is the problem. Only slavery damaged us more.

You would think that 13 years of Prohibition would have burned something into the collective American consciousness: This doesn’t work. But no: The states had to be bribed into letting go of Prohibition by being granted powers over alcohol that would have been struck down as unconstitutional prior to 1933. The unsated prohibitionist psychology then turned to psychoactive substances, and while the prohibition we now have on the books is less broad than the one against alcohol, its effects run much deeper. People resist (as they resisted Prohibition eighty years ago) and when people resist, we tighten the screws even more, creating a global, multiethnic network of organized crime, destroying young lives for minor infractions, and denying painkillers to people dying of cancer. (This may not happen often, but having watched my own father die slowly of cancer, I insist without qualification that it must not happen ever.)

The answer isn’t to eliminate all regulation of psychoactive substances. The answer (as always) is a little more complex than that. We have to honestly ask ourselves: Would things really be worse if we loosened up some? (Of course, there’s no way to know without trying.) But more than that, we need to put some serious time and money into researching why people abuse drugs and alcohol to begin with. Most substance abusers that I’ve known well were clearly depressed. I didn’t make the connection when I was younger; it wasn’t until losing my publishing company dipped me (lightly) into the bad water of depression a few years back that I grasped that depression is a form of pain that simply can’t be understood without experiencing it. It isn’t just sadness; it’s something far darker and stranger, a gray force that saps the will and dims the light of one’s own humanity. Depression and substance abuse are strongly correlated, and while causes and effects are still not clear, I intuit that many seriously depressed people reach for primal stimulation (sex, drugs, booze, gambling, risk-taking) simply to remind themselves that they aren’t dead. And when that doesn’t work, the next step is as obvious as it is appalling.

We can do better. Alas, because so little research is being done, we don’t know how much better we can do. Prozac is cheaper than prison (both financially and psychologically) but until we as a culture can get past the weird notion that depression is a mark of a weak personality (and treating depression a sop to childish intransigence) the drugs will flow, the violence will continue, and the flames of young lives will wink out under the pressure of an unnameable but unbearable pain.