The High Price of Moral Growth: Prohibition, Civil Rights, and the 99%
Before we were the United States, we were a colony of the British Empire. We drank tea, because the British had fallen in love with the Chinoise of the tea found in some of their other ports — tea was the drink of the day.
That ended with the Boston Tea Party, in part because our access to tea was through the Empire, in part because coffee was closer and due south, and in part because we wanted to forever blow a big raspberry at the Empire, and not drinking tea was a good way to do it.
Enter the United States of America — a colony no more — with it’s expanding and enveloping philosophies. Suddenly we had farmland, and thus grapes, corn, barley, rye, hops, and wheat –and all those good things that let the brew-masters and vintners immigrating from all over the world could use to make wine, beer, and all manner of alcoholic beverages.
So coffee was moved to the back burner — and beer, rotgut, sour mash, and bathtub gin were in every glass and on every table.
Yes, there were “tea-totalers” but for the most part, we were a pretty hefty drinking nation. The stats from the early 1800s through the early 1900s tell us that the average consumption of hard liquor was upwards of 40 quart bottles per year. That’s more that 2/3 of a quart (about 20-25oz) per person-per week.
Let me put it another way. That’s an AVERAGE of 3 shots of hard liquor every day of every year for every man, woman, and child. And we’re pretty sure the kids weren’t drinking their share, so it must have been their parents. And times being what they were, that would be mostly the men. So we’re talking about 6-8 shots of liquor a day.
And that’s a lot of booze.
Then — along comes prohibition.
It’s a little hard to imagine what would cause an entire nation to go along with Prohibition, unless you think about what a world would be like with half or a third of all the people consuming 8-12 oz of whiskey a day. Is it any wonder there was so much wife and child abuse? Is it any wonder there were so many industrial accidents in the early part of the century? Is there any question about how so many people “died of drink” in those days?
But Prohibition cost the US a lot. Before it was done, our politicians and police were corrupted by pay-offs. Organized crime was so organized that it had permeated every major city in the country. Our economy was based on police who turned a blind eye, and bootleggers who made their fortunes on a tax-free money stream. If it’s not legal — it can’t be taxed.
When the folly of Prohibition finally became too obvious to suppress, the society that emerged was very different that it had been only a few years earlier. There was, in fact, a single — lonely — but clear change in our attitude toward over-consumption of alcohol. Before Prohibition — constant drinking from morning until night was the norm. After Prohibition, it became a sickness.
A sickness. A disease. Alcoholism. We didn’t clearly understand the mechanism of addiction — but we’d figured out that constantly altering our physical chemistry was not only altering our morals, our consciences, and our inhibitions — it was also deadly. Drunks — with their continually altered state — were having unbridled emotional experiences; loss of physical and emotional control; loss of consciousness; and complete alienation from the world around them. They could not hope to have an honest emotional relationship. They could not hope to enter the world daily and be safe — or without being a danger to others. They could not see themselves or their own actions as they were seen by others.
Before Prohibition — this state of being was everywhere, common, and part of the “normal” world. After Prohibition, this state of being was a sickness, and something to be seen as a medical and physical abnormality. Drink was a sin and a weakness as we entered Prohibition, but afterwards, it was a treatable and cure-able illness. It was no longer “normal” and accepted to be addicted to drink.
Back up now to the 1800s.
After slavery ended, the US changed. Well…. In some ways it changed — in many other ways, it never did. The deep south adopted the KKK as it’s cover story for anger, racism, and hatred. Segregation was everywhere — and in some ways was as heavy a chain as slavery had ever been.
Then we went to war. We ALL went to war. In WWII, there were black troops in the same uniform as white troops. Navajo. Hispanics. Immigrants from every corner of the globe fought in US Army and Navy uniforms. We weren’t exactly sure what Hitler was up to, but it was obvious that he had far-reaching goals — so we entered the war (much later than many countries) and went off to fight in the name of freedom.
It was only after the war was over, when Hitler was dead and the war in the South Pacific was drawing to an end, that we marched into the camps across northern Europe and realized that there was more evil to Hitler than anyone had imagined. Gas ovens. Mass graves. Horror stories. Nightmares. Tattoos on the arms of thousands of people we didn’t even know were missing. Medical experimentation on living subjects. Gulags to rival hell itself.
And those who came out of the death camps were jews with yellow stars of David sewn onto their clothes, and homosexuals with pink triangles sewn onto theirs. Enemies of the State (of Hitler’s regime.) Dissidents, misfits, and downtrodden souls of every stripe — all but exterminated by a madman and his jack-booted brown shirts.
And our troops were there. ALL our troops were there. And many of them died in Europe, North Africa, and the South Pacific. Men of every color — and every stripe.
And suddenly it began to be difficult here at home to make those same distinctions that Hitler and the Nazis had made — without feeling a twinge of familiarity. How could we segregate and label and ostracize and hate people whose only crime was in being NOT LIKE US. Hitler’s crimes were so abhorrent, that I believe the American (and the global) consciousness shifted — and we changed our moral minds in the 20 years that followed those days at the end of the War in Europe. I think we, as a nation, could no longer stand the thought that we might be as guilty of something like racism or prejudice — as Hitler had been.
Because his name would forever be linked to murderous bigotry — what had been “normal” here in the States before WWII, was beginning to be seen as a kind of illness. Prejudice, like addiction, could no longer be accepted.
Before WWII, antisemitism was so widely embraced that children learned it in school. Jews were the “other” known to be the bottom rung of acceptability. (Shylock at least had his “Hath not a Jew eyes…” speech in the Merchant of Venice.) But WWII made it completely unacceptable. 65 years later when the West hears arab nations and people of the Middle East espouse hatred of the Jews and of Israel as a nation, we still cringe, even though their wars and strife have been going on for centuries, and we know their institutionalized hatred is more than a passing tiff. Still — Auschwitz is the image we carry in our heads. Smokestacks churning out the greasy stench of death. Children hiding in latrines. Pink triangles, yellow stars. Blue, green, white…symbols of hate and of Hitler’s own self-loathing.
The moral change happened slowly for those living through it because it truly was an internal shift first. Marches and bus-rides and speeches made on the National Mall came long after the initial change in the morality of our country. It seemed to take forever, but it was lightning fast in terms of the arc of history.
And even though it was much slower, there has been a difficult and welcomed change in attitude toward people of various sexual orientations, I believe it was the same association with the outright evil, hatred, and ambition of the Nazis in WWII that began to soften the American heart and mind — and throw off the prejudice against these people as well. It happened (is happening) more slowly — but it is happening just as surely. The man who shouts “God hates fags” might as well just grow the toothbrush mustache and wear a swastika armband, because he has no more chance of being heard than Hitler would if he were out on the streets today. He is the moral grandson of a monster. We have seen that injustice before, and we are growing up to be a people who will not stand for it.
Like Prohibition, the lessons of WWII came at a very high price. Outrageously high. Unthinkably high. Unforgivably high. Thousands and thousands of lives. Millions of lives. Millions of lives paid. And the world saw and memorized the sounds and images — the results of anger, hatred, fear, and prejudice.
And — I am persuaded that we may be looking at that same moral “growing up” about to happen now. Right now.
We have lived with people drunk on their own money for a while. We see people who don’t look twice at a hungry child, or a homeless veteran. We’ve seen the addiction called GREED, and the amoral behavior it produces. We’ve seen the pathology of greed, and the hardness of heart, the selfishness, and the inhumanity it leaves like a footprint.
We’ve seen people standing tall and proud in churches and synagogues and mosques — then begrudging children foodstamps and school lunch programs. We’ve seen the Madoffs and the Enron Corporation stealing the life savings of those about to retire and calling it “high finance” and “natural selection.”
We’ve seen people willing to pollute rivers, the Gulf of Mexico, and even oceans without a second thought — in order to up the bottom line on a quarterly report. And we’ve seen them evict hard working families from their homes through dirty tricks, and then, out of pure meanness, dress up as the homeless for a Halloween costume party.
And we’ve reached the point where we can no longer call it normal, or acceptable behavior. Greed, like addiction and prejudice, is an illness. A sickness. An excess of something poisonous in the body. Something that needs to be addressed by professionals who can help the greedy come to terms with what must be done to live in our society. More profit at any cost is the creed of madmen.
Greed can no longer be seen as a quirk or an overactive and adrenaline-soaked habit. The Church of MORE has to come down, and the addiction to money has to be seen as a character flaw and a pathology so un-American and so inhuman as to be driven out of society. This is an obcessive compulsion that cannot be allowed to harm another generation.
Greed, corruption, addiction, and prejudice are the maladies of a society committing slow and narcissistic suicide. In the same way that addiction to alcohol will kill you by rotting your body– In the same way that prejudice and anger and hate will kill you by inches as it destroys your heart, and strangles your mind– Greed, and the selfishness that it demands, will create a wall too high and too thick to ever have contact with civil society again.
Greed is the moral addiction and prejudice of the 21st Century. And we know that simply pointing out to the greedy that they no longer fit into civil society will not make them suddenly generous and kind — any more than pointing out to a drunk that he has alienated everyone who ever loved him will turn him sober. Addicts fight back. In fact, they can be vicious and more self-destructive than any wild animal caught in a similar trap.
I expect the same will be true with the greedy.
And since money is the object of the dependency — that money can be played as power. The power to fight back harder and longer and stronger. The power to destroy those who want to lock the liquor cabinet. The power to strike out at those who hold the mirror (and the camera) up for all to see. Drunks may be physically strong and able to put up a hell of a fight — but the greedy are armed to the teeth with media, lawyers, lobbyists, ad agencies, private security firms, and accountants.
The price of moral growth is always high, and doesn’t always take the path we imagine.
But it is inevitable.
There are still drunks — but we call them alcoholics and they are seen universally as the “other.” We all are able to spot the symptoms and tell-tale signs. We all know that Amy Winehouse really should have gone to rehab.
There are still those who live everyday with their prejudices and anger and hate. But their behaviors and beliefs are not those of mainstream America. They are isolationists. They retreat to their own little worlds and block out all those that they hate and fear. They live in dark and curtained worlds. They are not really part of America. They live their lives with their fists clenched and their jaws set and their teeth grinding. Hate is its own punishment.
And in the end so is greed. I suppose a rich and greedy man could live a long time locked up, far away from the America that grew up and forgot his American Dream. If you look at the saddle-leather face of Bernie Madoff, he looks for all the world like an alcoholic. His circulation is slow and his heart barely beats. His hands are like meat-hammers, and his eyes are only focused inward. As well manicured and coiffed as Madoff and Ken Ley were — there is no tan, no haircut or dental work, and no plastic surgery that can hide the addiction and the selfishness of greed.
Moral growth — especially on a global scale — has a price. So be ready for it. I don’t know what the price will be; but I know as sure as I am breathing that there will be one. Hopefully it will not cost as many lives as it cost to expose the wickedness and evil of prejudice and bigotry. Hopefully it will not so corrupt the system it hopes to change as Prohibition did.
Sobriety and equality are good for the world. Loving our neighbors and being our brother’s keeper will be good for the world, too. Having a government that is free of corruption and greed will be good for the world. Just know as we go into this that it won’t be free.