(p. C4) . . . in her new book, “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State” (W. W. Norton), the historian Lisa McGirr tells anything but a nostalgic story. The 18th Amendment, she argues, didn’t just give rise to vibrant night life and colorful, Hollywood-ready characters, like Isidor Einstein, New York’s celebrated “Prohibition Agent No. 1.” More enduringly, and tragically, it also radically expanded the federal government’s role in law enforcement, with consequences that can be seen in the crowded prisons of today.
In The New York Times Book Review, James A. Morone writes that the book “could have a major impact on how we read American political history.” In a recent email interview, Ms. McGirr, a professor at Harvard, discussed Prohibition’s political legacy, the surprising enforcement role of the Ku Klux Klan and the character from her story she’d most like to have a drink with. Below are excerpts from the conversation.
. . .
Q. You argue that Prohibition gave rise to today’s “penal state.” How did that happen?
A. By birthing a new national obsession with crime, Prohibition — and the violence that came with it — pushed the federal government in the direction of policing and surveillance. This was the moment that saw the first national crime commission, the birth of the Uniform Crime Reports, an expanded prison system and the establishment of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. The F.B.I. also won expanded authority.
. . .
Q. You describe how the Ku Klux Klan helped enforce Prohibition in places like Williamson County, Ill., where federal authorities deputized its members to conduct sometimes deadly raids on distilleries, bars and private homes — taking particular aim at Italian immigrants. What made the Klan such an ally in the war on alcohol?
A. The Klan sold itself to white Protestant evangelicals as a law enforcement organization, winning droves of recruits with its promise to clamp down on bootlegging. There were plenty of Klansmen who imbibed, but that did not stop them from leveraging the law to target the drinking of the presumed enemies of white Protestant nationalism: immigrants, Catholics and African-Americans.
For the full interview, see:
JENNIFER SCHUESSLER, interviewer. “A Word with Lisa McGirr; Throwing a Cold Splash on Prohibition Nostalgia.” The New York Times (Thurs., DEC. 31, 2015): C4.
(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)
(Note: the online version of the interview has the date DEC. 30, 2015, and has the title “Lisa McGirr Discusses ‘The War on Alcohol’ and the Legacy of Prohibition.”)
The book under discussion, is:
McGirr, Lisa. The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 2015.