A Prohibiting Question

If it did nothing else, Mark Bergen’s Like, Comment, Subscribe: Inside YouTube’s Chaotic Rise to World Domination gave me a great deal of sympathy for those that tried to run this unusual company. Everyone in the early years of the web believed that the power the internet granted for anyone to say anything would work overwhelmingly for good. Much of YouTube’s history can get boiled down to dealing with the continual disproval of this hope. For every click on a silly, weird, enlightening or endearing video, another of icky sexual, violent, racist content, would crop up somewhere else. Keeping up with problematic videos quickly proved impossible. Deciding what should stay and what should go sometimes came down to blunt metrics, other times to personal judgments by a few harried staff. Neither approach could solve the problem–the problem has no solution. The internet disrupts everything. To quote Yeats, with the internet the center no longer holds. When that happens, movement away from the center takes one up, down, and every which way possible–certainly not always up! And yet, despite its missteps and issues, no one can conceive of YouTube somehow failing. Very quickly it became part of the American experience.

Many have attempted to define the essence of America. My personal stab involves the concept of “movement.” I suppose that means that I basically agree with Frederick Jackson Turner’s thesis. From the moment Europeans arrived on the continent, they began expanding their reach at a rapid pace. After the French-Indian War, England made a treaty with France that guaranteed English settlers everything east of the Appalachians. Not good enough. The Americans wanted more, and almost immediately violated the treaty terms, which resulted in Pontiac’s War of 1764. The English surely felt angry and confused. We had perhaps 10x as much land as England, and somehow this was not enough? Can’t we settle down for five minutes?

Of course we rapidly set ourselves on.a course of acquiring more land, by fair means or foul. We can understand this phenomena in part through our associations of land with liberty, which comes partly through John Locke, and partly through various other streams. But more deeply, our national predilection for movement comes naturally vis a vis our geographical symbolism. Sure, the world is round, but for Europeans at least America represented the end of the world, the edge of the world. Naturally we lived into this mental model. On the edge, things get blurry and more fluid in a literal sense (rivers or bodies of water often form boundaries of different places), and culturally and spiritually as well. America has always existed on that fluid margin.

It should not surprise us, therefore, that America has created technologies that compress time and eroded space, such as the telegraph (which admittedly had various people in different places working simultaneously with Samuel Morse), the car, the airplane, the internet, and so on. All of these technologies have had the overall impact of adding fluidity and movement to our world.

Prohibition has always perplexed me. Ken Burns’ documentary series succeeded admirably in looking at the small details of how the movement came about and collapsed. But whatever explanations we offer, from a distance Prohibition must strike us as historically bizarre. Alcohol has played a significant role* in every civilization ever that I am aware of, and we somehow believed that we could and should turn off that spigot.

Initially at least, it should also strike us as strange that an era that that moved so fluidly and loosely in a progressive direction, with

  • The beginning of cars going mainstream
  • Women getting the right to vote
  • Women starting to look and act more like men (hair and clothing styles changed)
  • General economic growth and prosperity
  • The advent of radio

should on a dime attempt a very ambitious “tighten” in an area more or less destined to fail. What follows is my attempt to understand this seeming paradox.

We tend to believe that

  • Liberals like to ‘liberalize’ and keep things moving in a fluid direction, and
  • Conservatives like to tighten things and prevent change.

So, the political left favors “time,” and the right “space.”

But in reality, both sides have their aspects of their opposite. Progressives tend towards fluidity and the consequent “mixing” of gender identities, sexual identities, and the like. They disdain borders in culture and politics, preferring a global outlook. But they want much more stability on questions of speech, they seek to protect and create “safe spaces” for those they believe disadvantaged. They also prefer equality, which wants everyone together in one place, and want the market contained to prevent inequalities.

For their part, conservatives want to contain traditional ideas of family, sexuality, and the like. They value the defined space of country and flag. But they also want the market flowing freely. And–they value liberty over equality, which separates people and allows for distinctions in accolades, money, and the like.

One could see this as a kind of schizophrenia for both sides, a manner of confusion that could exist on the geo-spatial margin. I think that explains American politics partially. No question–America is weird, and likely always will be. Our political disagreements then, involve not “Tight v. Loose” but where to tighten, and where to loosen.

Though American politics is weird, I also think that fundamentally each person–and each civilization–must create some kind of balance between stability and change, because it forms the pattern of existence. Life requires it. Too much fluidity and mixing brings the flood and chaos–we perish from drowning. Too much rigidity puts us in the petrified forest, where we perish from dehydration. So we need to craft if not an actual balance between these two aspects, at least some kind of working relationship. One of our problems in the modern era is that traditional societies had this relationship worked out in theory, but mostly in practice. You see this in times in liturgical calendars for fasting, feasting, carnivals, and so on. Today, we subconsciously understand the need for stability and fluidity but have no clear idea of how to have both properly, and no guides in our culture to inform us. So, we flail about blindly instead.

I think something similar happened with Prohibition. For the above mentioned reasons, American society in 1920 felt itself on the edge of a precipice of sorts, ready to engage in a great deal of fluid movement socially, culturally, and economically. I fit most aspects of a conservative and so favor stability, but I do not subscribe to Fluidity=Bad, Stability=Good. Obviously both are good or bad depending on context. So, I do not mean to say here that the changes in the 1920’s were bad per se, but that their scale contributed to our need to tighten somewhere else. The dramatic and foolish nature of the tightening that occurred over Prohibition, I propose, was a subconscious reaction to a dramatic acceleration of fluidity. So perhaps either

  • Because we lacked a coherent means of knowing how and where to tighten a particular area of society, we landed on alcohol more or less randomly, or
  • The unprecedented loosening would require an unprecedented tightening, with alcohol then as the somewhat natural choice.

I find the latter more persuasive, though either one helps us answer the mystery of Prohibition.


*I understand the argument that a) Americans drank more than other civilizations had at any time previously, and b) Drank maybe too much harder stuff than wine, mead, beer, etc. Perhaps Prohibition might have had a better chance of success if they had focused on liquors instead of everything, but I doubt it.