“Slavery was our worst idea,” says legendary documentarian Ken Burns. “I’m not sure that Prohibition was second, but it’s really up there.” In his five-and-a-half-hour film Prohibition, which aired in three parts on PBS in October, Burns takes an in-depth look at one of the most controversial episodes in U.S. history. Working with his longtime collaborator Lynn Novick, Burns explores the causes, failures, and legacy of the nation’s “Noble Experiment” in banning alcohol.
Burns’ previous works on topics such as the Civil War, baseball, and jazz were critical and commercial successes, helping to revitalize the documentary form and start rich conversations about race, history, and politics. Prohibition likely will do the same.
“There were all these factions, left and right, black and white, that were for [banning alcohol],” he says. “It [is] too easy to dismiss it as purely a retrograde, conservative attempt to pull the country back to some good old days that never existed. It was a much more complicated dynamic.” The documentary stresses the role of Progressive legislators in pushing the 18th Amendment.
Burns, a self-described “Democrat for life,” eschews doctrinaire activism in his art, bringing decades-old stories to life through the eyes of colorful characters, written testimonials, and period music. “The telling of history need not be Castor Oil, the dry recitation of dates, facts, and events,” he says.
Despite the immense popular appeal of his work, Burns is no fan of “the market” when it comes to making films. While Bank of America is a major funder of Prohibition, he says that in a commercial television setting the company probably would have exerted editorial pressure on the finished product. He says corporate money and commercial outlets, even on niche cable channels, come with too many strings and compromises attached. And he worries that the proliferation of cheap production and distribution technologies, while a cause for optimism, leads to audience fragmentation. “People can seek their own self-satisfying sources of knowledge,” he says, which “is hugely dangerous.”
reason.tv Editor in Chief Nick Gillespie sat down with Burns in New York City in October. For video of this interview, visit reason.tv.
reason: Why is Prohibition in vogue these days? There seems to be a real interest in this period, in re-examining it.
Ken Burns: There’s always a superficial interest in Prohibition. You’ve got gangsters; everybody wants to be able to kill the people who piss them off. You’ve got women who are seemingly promiscuous; the flapper dancing with the short skirt and the bobbed hair on top of the tables.
But in every case is the understanding that Prohibition reveals a lot more. This is the story of single-issue political campaigns that metastasize with the most horrible unintended consequences, including creating organized crime. This is about the demonization of recent immigrants. This is about a whole group of people who feel like they’ve lost control of their country and want to re-exert that control by imposing on these newcomers some new law. It sounds so familiar.…It resonates with today’s themes.
reason: What are the parallels with today? Is the parallel directly to the drug war?
Burns: No, I think it’s less to that. Alcohol is used by every culture since there have been human beings. Drugs are a subcultural thing. Alcohol was something everybody did, so eliminating it required a great act of faith to take place. Drugs are not favored by a majority of people. While there are lots of similarities and the possibility of taxing and regulating marijuana is a hugely interesting consideration, once again, it’s unintended consequences. You have to be careful.
[Prohibition was] so much like our political moment: lack of civil discourse, the demonization of immigrants, smear campaigns during presidential elections, all of this sort of single-issue campaigning. All of that stuff resonates with today, because, in fact, human nature is the same. Prohibition brings out and reveals to us our essential dichotomy, not between us as much as within us. The generosity and the greed. The Puritans and the prurients. The sincerity and hypocrisy. The Saturday night at the bar and the Sunday morning in church.
reason: Your previous documentary, about America’s national parks, called them America’s best idea. Would you say Prohibition was our worst?
Burns: It’s close to being our worst. Slavery was our worst idea. I’m not sure I’d put Prohibition second, but it’s really up there. For the first time in our history, we had an amendment—which were usually about expanding human rights—that actually restricted human rights. It was put in there, ironically, as an amendment because we thought it would be enshrined in the Constitution and therefore never be repealed. But of course it’s the only amendment that’s been repealed, which shows that at least we have some intelligence and woke up to the hypocrisy.
(Interview continues below video.)