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The Modern Prohibition Era

COVID has brought us back to the dark days of social engineering.

We are in the midst of a 21st century Prohibition Era. The target is not booze but rather the very things that make life worth living: dining, socializing, family, sports, friends, and even a decent cup of coffee. The response to the coronavirus pandemic has been to shut us away in the same manner as zealous lawmakers once sought to curtail alcohol. But this time, there is no 21st Amendment on the horizon.

As Abraham Lincoln once said:

“Prohibition …  goes beyond the bounds of reason in that it attempts to control a man’s appetite by legislation and makes a crime out of things that are not crimes … A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”

Initially vetoed by President Woodrow Wilson, the Volstead Act, formally the National Prohibition Act, came into effect in 1920 to enforce the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. It was named after Minnesota Representative Andrew Volstead, who pushed the law through Congress.

It was intended to curb the excesses of the American people through the force of law. Now it seems that only the excesses remain legal. Gone are the opportunities for fine dining; instead, we are encouraged to satiate our appetites with fast food. So long to sports and gyms, now we must get our entertainment via the tube. And personal relationships have been sacrificed on the altar of the common good.

A poem by John Gilman, Life During Prohibition, set in the 1920s, makes a startling comparison to the modern era:

the moon hangs low over the old part of town

stores are closed, and nobody ventures around

gangster fighting has reached an all time high

and we hide indoors from tommy gun sounds


on 47th street the pavements are running red

with the blood of innocents added to the dead

this is a different age in the nineteen twenties

prohibition wars now fill the streets with lead


somber grey clouds scud thru a darkened sky

soon to weep raindrops for those about to die

they say there’s a better tomorrow that awaits

but tonight the grim reaper

smiles at those

who cry

The poem talks of lead in the streets, the sound of gunfire, and violence; ultimately, Gilman is painting a picture of fear. He notes that the people are hiding from the sound of Tommy guns, but this could just as easily be read as sheltering from harm — and it’s not always criminals who cause the damage.

During Prohibition, in an effort to curb the population’s enthusiasm for drink and to force compliance with the law, the federal government purposely poisoned an estimated 10,000 Americans. This “chemist’s war” started as a method of deterring those who drank alcohol stolen by bootleggers and resold for human consumption.

The Chicago Tribune wrote of this state-sponsored extermination in 1927: “Normally, no American government would engage in such business … It is only in the curious fanaticism of Prohibition that any means, however barbarous, are considered justified.”

Of course, this is not the only time that the government has decided to poison its own people to enforce a prohibition. In the mid-‘70s, the State Department funded salaries and helicopters in Mexico to spray marijuana fields with the herbicide paraquat to destroy the crop. But it did not always work. By some estimates, almost 30% of the weed that made it into America was contaminated. In high doses, paraquat can lead to irreversible lung damage and even death.

Despite public outcry over this state-sponsored poisoning, it was resumed in Georgia in the late ‘80s and was not finally curtailed until the ‘90s.

Prohibition of any kind and its enforcement often have unintended negative consequences. By the end of Prohibition in 1933, it’s estimated that some 30,000 speakeasies were operating just in New York, and the American Mafia was born.

Another poem, this one by Franklin P. Adams, written in 1931 and simply titled Prohibition, goes like this:

Prohibition is an awful flop.

We like it.

It can’t stop what it’s meant to stop.

We like it.

It’s left a trail of graft and slime,

It won’t prohibit worth a dime,

It’s filled our land with vice and crime.

Nevertheless, we’re for it.

And that brings us back to today.

We are living through a modern prohibition. In many states and even countries, restaurants, cafes, “non-essential” shops, libraries, health services are closed. In Britain, the public is warned by the government that it is not acceptable to sit on a park bench nor to visit elderly family members. And yet, so many formerly free citizens echo government propaganda and slogans that “we are all in this together,” “stay home to save lives,” all the while the promise that the initial lockdown would work to save them all proved false. The U.K. is now on its third lockdown, and cases of COVID keep rising; lockdown didn’t work the first time nor the second, so why the optimism that a failed strategy will work now? Perhaps the third time is a charm?

A final poem that I believe displays how we, as citizens, all too eagerly embrace our own Prohibition, only to regret it later, was published in the Cincinnati Enquirer. It’s called Old Ben:

Each night, for more than 40 years,

He drank a couple of good beers.

He never would exceed that number,

He said that beer promoted slumber;

It was a tonic, so he said,

And to him it was liquid bread.

He said that whisky poisoned men,

He was against it, was Old Ben.

So he went out and voted dry,

To kill the bourbon and the rye.

He killed the whisky, but, oh, dear!

He also found he’d killed his beer.

He needed beer, and he was sad,

For there was no beer to be had.

Now in a cell we hear him groan —

For Old Ben tried to make his own.

So many of us have willingly embraced the prohibitions and restrictions that came along with COVID-19. We were told that it was for the greater good, that it would all be over soon if we just locked down for a short time. Well, that time has dragged on and on. We are made hermits by our initial acceptance; we are becoming physically and mentally unhealthy. Child suicide is rocketing, deaths of despair are reaching new highs, and, even with the much-lauded vaccine programs, we are told that restrictions will remain in place.

What will be the long-term consequences? Will we have speakeasies that sell illicit steaks? Will midnight gyms open up for those desperate to fulfill their addiction to a health regimen? But, most importantly, we have to consider what damage will be imposed on our relationships: people unable to say goodbye to their dying relatives, separated from spouses on their deathbeds. These are lasting wounds that no amount of government assistance or repeal can ever heal.


Read more from Mark Angelides.

Read More From Mark Angelides

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