One of my favourite lessons from History, now in the form of a three part documentary:
Of course, it is not just about alcohol (or any other intoxicant). It is about any moral, ethical or legal issue. It is about unintended consequences. It is also about politics and meta-politics and the influence of religion, race, money etc. over it. It is about racism and anti-immigration. It is about religious bigotry. It is about gender bias. It is about organization and mobilization. It is about rural versus urban life. It is about conservatism versus liberalism. It is about the proletariat versus the bourgeoisie. It is about solidarity. It is about crime and punishment. It is about Human Nature. It is about what is radical in a time and place and what is not. Finally, it is about economics.
All these are connected in real life. The Great Dilemma of real world politics is, however, that the lesson from it seems to be that single issue politics is most likely to succeed in the short term.
But an opposite lesson is that it is also guaranteed to fail in the medium or long term. That’s one of the reasons why real political change is so difficult to achieve.
There are many sub-lessons too, for example in the way the Women’s Suffrage movement thought about Prohibition before and after this great mistake.
Still, in spite of its relevance, we have to keep in mind that times have changed in some very fundamental ways. Just to give a small example, we have no H. L. Mencken now. Nor F. Scott Fitzgerald. Nor even an FDR.
The Mainstream Media has transformed, across the political spectrum, into something I can’t express without using some very very derogatory words. There is widespread TV now, which is far worse than even the Mainstream Media.
Not to mention the technological and economic changes.
And the core specific issue is going to be super-relevant because a whole new generation of intoxicants are on the way. And they are coming from the top, not from the immigrants, but the local heroes of the New Global Establishment. You won’t be able to stop them. You will only be able to regulate them, if you don’t want to repeat history catastrophically.
Have you started thinking about that?
It is not really now. It was aired in 2011. And it was aired on PBS, which is part of the Mainstream Media. Even so, PBS is somewhat special case. Sitting here in India, it seems very special.
The Prohibition itself (the 18th Amendment) started in 1917 and ended in 1933. Till recently, it was not that unusual to see such programs on Mainstream TV almost 80 years after the whole affair ended. To some extent, on some channels in some countries, it still happens. Could it have been made (and shown) before 1933?
In the coming years (or months, or days, who knows in these times) even this kind of History lesson may become hard to get because now History is being re-written like never before, at least since Enlightenment.
Where will future generations find the truth (as much as it can be found, even with best efforts). Some Select Few might still have access to it, but even that does not seem certain now.
How long will PBS last as it exists today?
Big Data and Big Information and Smaller Knowledge and Tiny (or Zero) Understanding. And what is Wisdom? Back to thousands of years ago, perhaps.
What will politics mean then? What does it already mean? Have we reached a point of no return?
But what about Prohibition of the original intoxicant: alcohol? Is it gone forever, or at least everywhere? Not at all. It still exists in many places. Just as it did in the US back then. And it is following almost the same trajectory. And in these places, it can cause even more problems, if not for any other reason than simply because of poverty and the stigma.
Even in the past, Prohibition has been used politically in many other countries. For example, it was used (the movement of it), perhaps not that rigidly, but still as a rallying cry for reform by someone as illustrious as Gandhi. And most Gandhian (or those who call themselves Gandhian: the gap is getting larger as with any other ideology), still argue for it in some or the other form.
In places where it is still used, the reasons given (often very valid ones) are almost the same as for Prohibition in the US. The biggest similarity has been, perhaps in all cases of Prohibition, the support of women, particularly rural women. That support is based on just as valid grounds as the one in the documentary. Another big similarity is that, for similar reasons, it can swing elections. Many politicians have once again realized the political utility of it. Most probably they have known all along, but they didn’t believe it could swing elections.
A party in existential crisis in 2015 won the state elections by promising Prohibition and kept that promise. Seeing the success, others also started talking about it.
Same valid reasons, justifications and grievances. The same disastrous results. The same long term positive effects. Or may be not the last part, may be not in all cases.
I personally have little to do with it. Strange as it may sound, as alcohol use is widespread in India even with the enormous stigma, I hadn’t actually even seen an alcoholic drink till the age of around 25 or more likely 27. It wasn’t till the age of 38 that I had tried out one spoonful out of a glass that someone in a celebration had ordered. Now I have been to many conferences where there are (usually paid) banquets where liquour is served and I have tasted a glass or two several kinds of alcoholic drinks.
However, it is almost embarrassing to admit that I still haven’t developed a taste for such drinks. Not that I have ever been against alcohol as such. Nor do I have anything against those who drink.
One reason for me is that they are so bitter (particularly beer) and we don’t like bitter in India! We like sweets, lots of sweets. Very sweet. Too much sweet. The kind a westerner might taste and say (perhaps silently, Ugh!). I did too (liked sweet, that is). I still do, but not the ‘sweets’ themselves, just the taste sweet. Moderate sweet. Have I become Europeanized. That is, to some extent, a fact worth taking for granted for all those who are ‘well-educated’ and live in urban areas.
There is a very large number of Indians that drinks, so they must like it for some reasons, but I am not sure whether bitterness is one of them.
I am sure there are many many people in India who have actually never tasted alcohol in their whole life, as they consider it a sin, as did so many people the world over and throughout history.
But I can’t resist repeating again. The world is changing radically. In fact, the word radical isn’t even enough to describe that change.
For both who drink and those who don’t drink. Or those somewhere in between, like me.