Between the tyrannies of Twitter, Facebook and texting and the reduction of roughly half American discourse to like buttons, emoticons, acronyms and “diggs,” whatever those are, the reign of the short attention span is culture’s new Caesar. On the other hand the book of hours was basically a medieval blog, and the walls of Lascaux were pre-literate notebooks, better written than most of what’s been done since. So here’s where I surrender to vagrant scratches and notes on issues of the day, fugitive quotes, hit-and-run readings and reflections picked up from the cutting-room floor.
Leno out-and-out bombed, though as Daniel Kurtzman transcribed, he had a few good lines:
“As you know, a lot of Republicans couldn’t be here tonight because it is $1 drink night at the bondage clubs.”
“Michael Steele is here. Where’s Michael? This has got to be pretty boring entertainment for you isn’t it? This has got to be pretty boring entertainment for you, isn’t it? I know what you guys are used to. That was my favorite story: Republicans in a lesbian bondage club. Republicans don’t want lesbians marrying, but they do like to watch them tie the knot.”
“Washington is a very scary place. Between Republicans going to bondage clubs, and the SEC looking at porn, I can’t wait to get back to Hollywood — somewhere wholesome, where people have values.”
Nothing comparable to Obama though, who even pulled one out on poor Charlie Crist after warning that odds were that famous White House party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi were at the dinner: “There haven’t been people that were more unwelcome at a party since Charlie Crist.”
Obama’s line about Perdator drones going after any boys with ideas to mess with Sasha and Malia was almost as good as his best one, on John McCain: “John McCain couldn’t make it. He said he had never identified himself as a maverick. We all know what happens in Arizona when you don’t have ID. Adios, amigos.”
Here, watch the whole thing. It’s better than anything you might catch on the real comedic chat shows that are the Sunday morning clubs from Greet the Press to Face the Same Usual Ageing White Suspects:
First, listen to Tim James, Republican candidate for governor in Alabama:
Got that? This in a state that in 1990 passed the English-only Amendment 509 (with 88 percent of the vote), and from 1990 to 1998 did in fact stop providing driving tests in any language other than English. In 1998 the state’s monolingual definition of small-minded nativism lost in court. –until the U.S. Supreme Court in 2001 handed down a fractured 5-4 ruling that overturned the ruling, but also put the state’s federal highway dollars at risk if Alabama did go with an English-only test. So Alabama didn’t revert.
Lawsuits continued, by people whose lives would not be changed one whit if their neighbor were taking a test in English or Swahili. (No, it doesn’t take knowing English to drive, an activity predicated primarily on sign language.) The Alabama Supreme Court handed down its own 5-4 decision on the matter in 2007, finding that the state was not infringing the state’s English-is-the-official-language obsession by providing more tests in languages other than English.
That’s the Alabama court, by the way, made famous by that nutty Chief Justice Roy Moore who liked his Ten Commandments prominently throned in the lobby of “his” court building and above the law, from beneath which Moore was removed in 2003 on judicial ethics violations). What’s Moore doing now? Why, he’s running for governor–and leading the race against James.
Desperation brings out the best of the worst. James comes from a long line of wind-sniffing opportunists. His father Fob was the governor of Alabama from 1979 to 1983, as a Democrat, when he integrated Alabama’s state government. When Fob saw Reaganism give way to Bushism which gave way to the Contract on America in 1994, he ran as a Republican that year, won, and evolved into a no-evolution, death-penalty-loving, all-prayer type of governor. In other words: the kind of reactionary ideas that work with the mob. From Fob to Tim and Alabama’s continuing devolution through monomaniacal chauvinism.
“This is Alabama; we speak English,” James says. “If you want to live here, learn it.” That might be good advice for a good many native Alabamans, if memory serves. The state isn’t known as Shakespearean English’s summer retreat. Who is James speaking to, exactly? Who is we? And at what point does a resident of Alabama become an Alabaman, someone who can rightfully call himself part of that we? When the person has shed all taints of accents, maybe color, maybe curry smells from the kitchen? What about good old Alabama crackers who happen to be deaf and mute. The Alabama department of motor vehicles permits them to take the test in sign language. Should they be disallowed? What about Chinese drivers who have a thing for sign language but aren’t deaf, or mute, or Republican: can they take the test in sign language?
The most interesting thing about James’ nativist, faux-calm seethe, is this line: “Maybe it’s the business man in me, but we’ll save money.” He claims that by giving the driving test in 12 languages, Alabama is wasting money, and that giving it in one language would save money. It might in Alabama. But what about those billions in federal aid dollars?
The irony is that more people speak English in this country today, as a native or functional language, than at just about most points in the country’s history, save perhaps that period from the 1920s to the 1950s when the country’s borders became almost as tight as the iron curtain, which wasn’t even up until the late 1940s. Immigrants are more eager than Americans to learn the language, and usually better at it (the Alabama DMV should test taker’s grammar, then see who qualifies as an Alabaman). The tests in other languages are a mere convenience, a way of making residents feel more included as they make their way into Americanness. Unless of course Alabama would prefer to have fewer foreigners.
Which is the real message in James’ xenophobia. He’s not celebrating English. He’s not upholding any sense of national culture or shared experience. He’s refuting the notion of shared experiences by brandishing language as a divider, a demarcation mark between proper Alabamans and, essentially, illegal ones: Language as the new poll tax. Then again, why take James seriously? The guy represents a blessedly dying minority in this country, for tea partiers’ sake. But bless his English-huffing heart he’s going down fighting, and English-only bongas are a last-ditch effort to make a run at a job to make popa proud, wherever popa may be (the old Fob is still around). Besides, being an ass in Alabama has never been illegal.
“Matthew, 3, Idaho Falls, Idaho: While sitting on the toilet, he called his mom in for help. ‘Did you poop?’ Mom asked. ‘It started to come out, but then it went right back in like a yo-yo!’”
“Grant, 3, Palm Coast, Florida” (under the heading: “Metabolism Explained”): “Jumping in place, he says, ‘This is how you hexercise. Hexercising makes you eat faster.’”
“Jackson, 6, Palm Coast, Florida: ‘Endangered’ means there used to be a lot, but now there’s just a bit.’”
You’ll find these and other sayings by the smallest creatures caroming around their verbal discoveries at Brian McMillan’s Stick Figures of Us, a new blog from Palm Coast devoted to the reason nostalgia was invented: “Remembering my own kids’ one-liners and the tender-mercy moments, as well as yours,” Brian writes in his inaugural post (headlined, not coincidentally, with the first three words of Genesis), “will remind us how great it is to be parents. This is what life is all about.”
Not that the joys (and terrors) of parenting aren’t their own alarm bells. What they need, the joys especially, is a mechanism that bottles them up, preserves them the way those roadside museums all over byway America preserve “fearsome crowns of bolts, trusses, struts, nuts, insulators, and such” (as Updike described the constancy “more constant than evergreens” of companions even more enduring than children, whether we like them or not: telephone poles; I happen to love both, and some telephone poles more than some children I’ve known).
“Stick Figures” appears to be Brian’s mechanism for now, and parents across the land, some of them surely transmitting their one-liners by way of those same telephone poles, are keyboarding their stories. (“James, 6 (or 7), Marquette, Michigan: He’s older now, but when he was 6 or 7, James said, ‘When I get married I don’t want to kiss my wife, I just want that golden ring.’” The question is: did he get it?)
The blog reminds me of the great Nanette Newman books from the mid-70s in England, of kids’ sayings and drawings about love, parents, politics, war and such, like this gem from Jill, aged 7: “I think when you vote you have to do it in private. Its like swearing.” Or John, same age: “My daddy says he votes to go to the pub every night,” and Allison, 9: “Politicians are people sometimes.” That’s just on one page. It’s hilarious: “Not many people vote for Jesus now because he didn’t keep his promise,” from Gordon, aged 7. And Barack Obama thinks he has problems. Still some of my favorite books, which I first read in Lebanon, hardly understanding what was then a foreign language, and have now passed down to my children.
Good to see Nanette Newman rebooted. Brian McMillan is a just-published poet and the managing editor of the Palm Coast Observer, the weekly that shot out of the racks in this previously no-newspaper town a couple of months back–a daring act, considering print’s growing affinities for dodos. Then again some of the people making up Palm Coast’s demographics remember the days when they had dodos for pets, so a newspaper is a powerful nostalgic experience for them. Brian and I cross paths now and then at government meetings or rallies or other sundry inanities that thicken up any local reporter’s book of hours upon hours. I suspect we’ll have more interesting stories to swap from our children’s Everest climbs than anything a county commissioner or a city manager can think up.
Brian has three young children (I have two), and what looks like wit-in-waiting. In waiting, I assume, for being shell-shocked by his recent move to America’s premier exurb. I thought I had trouble getting used to Southern West Virginia after New York City and Chapel Hill, back in the days of the first Bush and pre-Monica Bill. It was nothing compared to the time it took to acculturate to the flatlandish sprawls and crawls of our beloved Medicare-by-the-Sea otherwise known as Palm Coast (as the city’s insecurities remind you with a Palm Coast sign stalking you at every other turn). I’m not alone.
Parenting moves us in ways more mysterious than any god and her brothers could think up though. My youngest son was born here. This is his home. This is his world, as it has been for his older sister, whose memories of former Floridas are fading faster than developers’ relevance. Terrifying as that might sound (my children’s identity I mean, not developers’ fading, which is a blessing), it is also the wonder of our middle-aged and strangely happy lives, stranger still considering that some of us are freshly and even more happily unemployed. This life of ours is cadenced as if, to borrow Brian’s words, to the sound of a child snoring: “the hiss of hydraulics, a rake through gravel, an ordering rhythm.” The suburban metaphors are no coincidence either, I’m sure, but that’s our lives now: we are the suburbs of our children’s universe, wherever they may be. The surroundings are less relevant than what they make of us through them.
I realize I’ve gone a bit afield from Brian’s original stick figures, but this isn’t an entry for a National Academy of Arts & Letters contest. It’s how Brian’s welcome blog got me thinking. Speaking of which: run over there and friend it or favorite it or fan it or whatever it is the tyrants of Facebook are forcing us to do at this hour.
One last word though. I notice Brian chose Blogspot as his platform. Incidentally, the very same template I chose for my first Book of Job in blogland some six years ago. (My first line in that vast wasteland: “John Roberts will be confirmed by the Senate and remain a Supreme Court judge until I’m past retirement then fertilizing daisies with my ashes.” We’re on pace.) Brian: Blogspot is the print of blogs, it’s disco in bytes. Migrate to a more flexible platform, quick, before it hijacks your inspiration with its rigidities. Not that Stick Figures won’t make us see past any limitations Blogspot throws in the way.
You can reach Brian McMillan or contribute your children’s one-liners at StickFiguresOfUs@gmail.com.
This isn’t necessarily big news beyond, say, Florida, or at least the United States, but it is to me and Cheryl (my wife), and likely to many of the people sitting in the orchestra section of the county government building’s board chambers, where I’m covering tonight’s the Flagler County School Board meeting as we speak.
Brett Copeland just belted out the Star-Spangled Banner. Wonderfully so, too. (It’s not as easy as you’d think, considering the endless massacres the old anthem endures when entrusted to Roseanne-like vocal cords that should stick with, at most, Liechtenstein’s or Iceland’s anthems before they try the bigger leagues. I’d hot-link the Roseanne massacre, which you can watch and hear on YouTube, but this being the school board’s wireless system I’m piggy-backing on, YouTube is blocked. Go figure.) With Brett was the Matanzas High School Army Jr. ROTC.
Anyway: why Brett? I don’t really know the guy. I used to see him, hear him and occasionally speak to him and likely aggravate him when he was in the Flagler Youth Orchestra, which Cheryl runs. Self-taught at the time, Brett was among the best of the group’s musicians, and certainly its most compelling. He could, and still can, command an audience, as he did tonight. Music is his anthem.
Brett is a senior at Matanzas High School, and a dual-enrollment student at Daytona State College. He’s due to attend Stetson come fall, from what I hear. To study music.
Don’t take my words for it: check out the school board’s website tomorrow, when the meeting’s video will be posted. You can skip the agenda items. Just watch Brett.
Maybe not a fan of the tea partiers’ ideas. But definitely a fan of their sincerity and, yes, eloquence.
I’ve just returned from covering the Tea Party Tax Day rally at Palm Coast Parkway and Old Kings Road. Its’ the most fun I’ve had in quite a while, the most engaging conversations I’ve had in a while, and the best corrective to the stereotypes that harass this group, my own stereotypes among them, that I could ask for.
It took being there. We may disagree. And we certainly do on most issues. Vehemently. Unreservedly. But if you were looking for loony behavior, vulgar demeanor, offensive signs or hostile attitudes (as I must admit I was), you would not have found it there. Not even close. These are your grandfathers and grandmothers and aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters and neighbors next door (though mostly your grandparents), the sort of people you’d want to hang out with if you had the time, the sort of people whose sincerity runs no less warmly through their veins than it does through yours.
- Festive Fears and Cheers at Palm Coast’s Tea Party Rally
- Tea Party Demographics
- Taking Back America–From Tea Party Phonies
There’s no question, to me anyway, that their ideas–political, social, economic–have as much to do with earthly realities as the debris flying around the Kuiper Belt. But that’s besides the point. The more relevant point is that this is not a fringe element in American society. You may call it “the lunatic fringe” if you like, but only in the sense that the great Southern writer Gerald Johnson used the phrase–a lunatic fringe in the tradition of Americans who, across the decades, have always coalesced into groups and movements that push the limits of public policy or express a rage of one sort or another because they feel they’re not otherwise being heard. It is an essentially American lunacy, the sort of lunacy that made this country and that has more about it to admire than not. You don’t have to agree with it. You only have to recognize that it is a voice, a legitimate voice, and often a compelling voice.
I wouldn’t say that it’s a voice that “deserves” to be heard: that would be condescending. It would suggest that somehow there are gatekeepers who choose who deserves to be heard and who doesn’t. (Troublingly enough, there are medias that assume, or rather presume, the role of gatekeepers.) Rather, it’s a voice that has every right to be heard, and if you care to listen, it might not sound nearly as grating or strident as you’d think.
Maybe it’s a Palm Coast thing. Let’s not have illusions: there are Tea Party rallies that have their share of obscenities, of racists, of idiots scampering about with Whittacker Chambers complexes and Obama-is-no-American type delusions. No movement is without its fanatics, no movement is without its demagogues. But if these nutty types exist, Palm Coast’s group is severely lacking in them. You’ll read and hear for yourself once I write up the story in the next couple of hours, and post a photo gallery.
I will note that of the 200 to maybe 250 people who turned up at the rally, I did not see a single black face, and was hard pressed to find very many Hispanics or Asians or anything not strictly, and to my taste boringly, white. It’s safe to say that I was likely the only former Arab, and certainly the only current liberal, there.
Then again, it’s not as if Palm Coast and Flagler County politics are a very diverse affair. We revel in the occasional token black presence on this board or that, holding it up, embarrassingly, patronizingly, as if it’s proof that this is a diverse community through and through, knowing fully well that in reality, Flagler County has a very, very long way to go before it can consider itself much more than a stratified community. The color line was more pronounced at today’s rally, because the further right Flagler’s politics go, the further white they get.
But that’s a story for another day.
Here’s the complete report, with audio interviews and photos, on the party rally. And to all of you tea party folks who graciously spoke with me and welcomed me today, many thanks.
I’m about to head out to Palm Coast Parkway and Old Kings Road where the tea party folks are holding their latest rally against (fill in the blanks).
Meanwhile, a fascinating story in today’s Times giving us a glimpse of what this phenomenon is all about. No surprise there: they’re overwhelmingly white, they’re generally in higher tax brackets rather than lower ones (hence their compulsive selfishness), they’re usually older, disproportionately on Medicare (“keep your government off my Medicare” is one of their favorite chants, which raises a question or two about their education level), and they’re scared. Fear is their co-pilot: they don’t want to fall into the lower rungs of society. But don’t we all? The question is: why do these folks take out their fear on the rest of us by vilifying the very things designed to keep people from falling through the cracks?
But here are the surprises:
Most describe the amount they paid in taxes this year as “fair.” Most send their children to public schools. A plurality do not think Sarah Palin is qualified to be president, and, despite their push for smaller government, they think that Social Security and Medicare are worth the cost to taxpayers. They actually are just as likely as Americans as a whole to have returned their census forms, though some conservative leaders have urged a boycott.
Tea Party supporters’ fierce animosity toward Washington, and the president in particular, is rooted in deep pessimism about the direction of the country and the conviction that the policies of the Obama administration are disproportionately directed at helping the poor rather than the middle class or the rich.
OK. Off to the rally. Stay tuned for plenty of photos and comments from our own tea party folks.
One of the pleasures of going to work when I started as a reporter some 21 years ago was my commute: I had none, at least none comparable to the 45 minutes, one way, I’d logged in the New York subway in the seven years I went to high school and college there. In Beckley, W.Va., where I took my first newspaper job in the fateful fall of 1989 (and a fall it was, for the Soviet empire), my $230-a-month hovel above a roofing business on City Avenue (heat and water included) was ten minutes away from the newspaper office–close enough for jaunts back home for lunch, for the occasional need to play hooky with a book that was more interesting than anything I was covering that day, for the occasional mid-afternoon tryst with a visiting girlfriend, also generally more enticing than anything I could possibly cover: journalism has always been a turn-on, but it has its limits. The short distance to work was also easy on my cars, two of the first three having more in common with temperamental mules than reliable machines. Sparing them was a matter of survival.
None of that would have been possible with a longer distance to work–the sort of distance I’ve had to contend with for almost ten years, living in Palm Coast and navigating the infernal traffic of I-95 and Daytona Beach to make it to the newspaper there.
No more. This morning’s commute, from home to government complex (hub of most things governmental in Flagler: county commission, school board, courts) was 3.1 miles, most of it unimpeded even by Palm Coast’s reputedly unbearable traffic (the unbearable is limited to two arteries, themselves unbearably pimply with traffic lights: Belle Terre Parkway and Palm Coast Parkway. The “parkway,” needless to say, is a parody of the word). It’s as if I’m gaining an hour a day. I’m looking forward to these non-existent commutes. The only drawback is that I can’t possibly get into the sort of audio books I’ve gotten used to hearing on I-95. Then again, those meetings I’ll be covering are for the most part duller than a mosquito’s naps on a summer’s day. There’ll be plenty of time for Tolstoy.
It was neither a great speech nor a bad one, neither reassuring nor inspiring. All those empty words (pressing the rest button, reclaiming the agenda, setting a new tone) are just as empty this morning. As we wrote in today’s News-Journal, “Barack Obama is channeling Ronald Reagan in too many ways. A centerpiece of Obama’s State of the Union message last night was rhetorical snake-oil — a freeze on government spending that exempts four-fifths of government, including defense and “homeland security,” both of which should be leading the list of spending cuts. Irresponsibly, weakly, Obama is shilling for those who think the government can still make up for a decade of reckless tax cuts, impulsive wars, speculative credit and the near-depression they caused without raising taxes and cutting defense and entitlement spending.”
Because in the end we never heard word one about getting the deficit under control and paying for the profligacy of the Bush years, for those trillions in deficits that Obama was careful to say he inherited when he “walked in the door.” He had his I-never-promised-you-a-rose-garden moment (“I never suggested that change would be easy”), but that’s not quite what we want to hear from a president, is it? It’s not that change should be easy. It’s that we have, or should have, a president capable of doing what’s necessary to accomplish the promised change. So far: nothing.
In sum I’m not nearly as impressed as the general sense of the punditocracy seems to be. There’s too much reaching for the old magic–which is just the problem: this lunge for “magic,” this desire to make the impossible real, when it should be the other way around. We’re surrounded by too much dismal reality that Obama’s policies have yet to transcend, or conquer. I still admire more about Obama than not, but these days he’s a slave to the political strait-jacket he’s enabling–the GOP’s hold on his agenda–by submitting to the illusions of bipartisanship.
Here’s a sampling of opinions on the speech (which you can read in full here):
Simon Reid-Henry in Britain’s New Statesman: “Obama seemed to track his way across a spectrum of different roles, first setting himself up with almost Blair-like enunciative stretch as local man, to deliver a variant on Clinton’s ‘I feel your pain’ moment, before shifting into family patriarch mode to remonstrate with those who have been causing him more than a little pain of late, and finally re-appearing as a born-again politician in some semblance of control amidst the melee going on around him. It was a deliberate rhetorical arc chained to a new variant on his message of Change. “Yes it can” became “let’s get it done”. But for all its rhetorically artful repositioning of the President, the message sounded strangely unconvincing.”
Robert Scheer in The Nation: “The state of the union is just miserable, no matter how President Obama sugarcoats it. He will claim that progress has been made in stabilizing the markets, increasing national security and advancing toward meaningful healthcare reform, but he will be wrong on all three counts. What he will be right about is that none of these problems were originally of his creation, and that the opposition party wants to exacerbate rather than solve any of them–believing, as they do, in that destructive maxim of desperate losers who find their salvation in the stumbles of the winners.”
Megan McArdle in the Atlantic: “I think we saw two serviceable speeches tonight. Obama was his usual, excellent caliber. Bob McDonnell did not utterly humiliate himself, which is a big win for a SOTU response. There were a couple of minor “That’s interesting” moments with financial reform and gays in the military, but mostly it was both sides saying, “I wish you’d help me enact my agenda, America.” Which is not exactly surprising. In the end, maybe Obama gets a transitory bump on the strength of his delivery, but I don’t see it really moving the needle on any issues. Nor do I think that the Republicans are going to rally behind McDonnell’s stirring rhetorical presence and storm the nation’s capitol. So everyone sleep easy . . . the world will still be much the same when you wake up tomorrow.”
The Wall Street Journal: “So much for all of that Washington talk about a midcourse change of political direction. If President Obama took any lesson from his party’s recent drubbing in Massachusetts, and its decline in the polls, it seems to be that he should keep doing what he’s been doing, only with a little more humility, and a touch more bipartisanship. That’s our reading of last night’s lengthy State of the Union address, which mostly repackaged the President’s first-year agenda in more modest political wrapping. “Our administration has had some political setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved,” he said, in his most notable grace note.”
I don’t find it particularly so. What am I saying? It’s not at all offensive in light of Harry Reid’s barely, marginally idiotic (and only for having been spoken too publicly) comments about Barack Obama’s speech and skin tone. Reid said in 2006 that Obama could become president because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”
Reid wasn’t wrong. This is still an essentially racist country. A black individual with skin darker than Obama’s or speech patterns more identifiably black, no matter his intellect, would unquestionably have had less of a chance than Obama (resurrect Martin Luther King and see for yourself). And “yes,” as John McWhorter writes in a fine essay on black English for the New Republic, “there is a such thing as Black English.” Reid’s mistake was to misjudge the juvenile media and political establishment, which is even more idiotic than the country is racist. What Reid said had the appearance of something vaguely inappropriate, and in an age of compulsive sanctimony, the country can’t go a day without finding one target or another to condemn as inappropriate. Tag you’re it, Reid.
The offense of the day though is the Omaha World Herald’s censoring of the above cartoon (that World Herald, former home of William Jennings Bryan and Ernest Hemingway). “Concerns were raised as to how the cartoon might be interpreted so my editor pulled it,” cartoonist Jeff Koterba told nealo.com. There was also something about color reproduction and the cartoonist intending the individuals Reid is addressing to be gangsta rappers, though the indeterminate hues must have also been part of the joke. Or should have been. Either way, spiked.
Thomas Fleming, a former president of the Society of American Historians, writes an excellent piece in today’s Wall Street Journal on the history and stupidity of Prohibition, the 13-year binge of sanctimony that a minority of eugenics fans, exploiting the anxiety of World War I and racist sentiment against Germans, imposed on the majority.
The column’s brief history lesson is a reminder that Prohibition wasn’t an overnight sensation but a slow process dating back to the late 19th century, when the minor craze for eugenics (the idea that you can refine the human race the way you can, say, beets), a craze even the likes of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes eventually fueled with his nutty decision on “imbeciles,” combined with a leading economist’s nuttier notion that an alcohol-free America would be 20 to 30 percent more productive to launch prohibitionists’ zeal. By 1900, 37 states had adopted dry laws. Instead of talk radio’s imbeciles rattling off falsities to the four corners of America, you had 20,000 Anti-Saloon League (ASL) speakers fanning out all over the place, drunk on their misinformation–and enebriating a good many people who heard them.
When World War I started and Woodrow Wilson opted to join the war to end all wars, the prohibitionists saw a terrific occasion to exploit their cause. How could American soldiers perform under the influence? Drinking in the military was banned (it actually still is, in places like Afghanistan and Iraq). Then, since thousands of wheat farmers in the United States were of German descent, the Anti-Saloon Leaguers portrayed it as unpatriotic to sympathize with “Huns” (or let grain be diverted to alcohol production when it could make bread for hungry soldiers and allies).
Woodrow Wilson could have vetoed a law that would have established national prohibition by July 1919. He didn’t, worried that he’d offend his dry-state constituents. He offended his Democratic majority anyway, which he lost in the congressional election of 1920, and with it the chance to better influence the post-war years. Then came the Volstead Act, which specified in clearer detail how alcohol would be prohibited (down to the maximum level of 0.5 percent allowable in any liquid, which lopped off beer and wine, too). Wilson vetoed that one on Oct. 27, 1919 but the House overrode him two hours later (176-55)–with 31 of New York’s 43 representatives and 24 of Pennsylvania’s 36 representatives absent. Most of those would have been “wet” votes whose participation would have defeated the override. The Senate overrode the next day, 65-20.
It wouldn’t have mattered that much anyway, had the override not gone through. The 18th Amendment, which Congress passed on Dec. 22, 1917, was becoming effective on Jan. 16, 1921. The Volstead Act merely spelled out how the nation’s police could go abouit cracking skulls. As Fleming writes,
For the next 13 years, Prohibition corrupted and tormented Americans from coast to coast. A disrespect, even contempt for law and due process infected the American psyche. Rather than discouraging liquor consumption, Prohibition increased it. Taking a drink became a sign of defiance against the arrogant minority who had deprived people of their “right” to enjoy themselves. The 1920s roared with reckless amorality in all directions, including Wall Street. When everything came crashing down in 1929 and the long gray years of the Great Depression began, second thoughts were the order of the day. Large numbers of people pointed to Prohibition as one of the chief reasons for the disaster.
Fleming himself goes off the cliff in his last paragraph, when he warns that “with talk of restructuring large swaths of our economy back in vogue, Prohibition should also remind us that Congress, scientists and economists seized by the noble desire to achieve some great moral goal may be abysmally wrong.” It’s a dishonest conclusion. It conflates good science with the imbecility of eugenics as if all scientists today are, even as they weren’t at the turn of the last century, as misguided as eugenicists of yesterday. It conflates the specious conclusion of one popular economist in the previous century with the work of all economists today. And it suggests that Prohibition–the wholesale banning of a right on moral, and morally indefensible, grounds–is comparable to congressional regulation, which bans little, and has nothing to do with morals and (we hope) everything to do with tempering the amoral excesses of the market.
As a lesson in Prohibition though, Fleming’s piece is worth a case of Carlsberg.