The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800, by Christopher Snowdon, Little Dice, 246 pages, $19.99
THE NEW Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary Prohibition is a five-and-a-half-hour missed opportunity to demonstrate why bans on substances are doomed from the start. Fortunately, for those who want to understand the irresistible lure of all types of prohibitions, there is Christopher Snowdon's The Art of Suppression: Pleasure, Panic and Prohibition Since 1800.Although Snowdon's comprehensive history will never reach as many people as the PBS series, The Art of Suppression makes the case that Burns seems to go out of his way to avoid: that prohibition of products that people desire, whether alcohol a century ago or Ecstasy today, is bound to fail miserably.
Deploying a colorful cast of characters, Snowdon, a British journalist whose first book, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist (2009), documented the history of anti-tobacco campaigns, tells the story of prohibition's broader context. He brings to the task the stinging humor reminiscent of H.L. Mencken, whom he quotes in describing one of the book's central villains, the Anti-Saloon League lawyer Wayne Bidwell Wheeler: "He was born with a roaring voice, and it had the trick of inflaming half-wits." Wheeler was a prototypical activist, Snowdon says, "the undisputed master of pressure politics...no one was more skillful or less scrupulous in applying pressure to wavering politicians"
Just as it is today, Ohio was a battleground state in the early 1900s, when Wheeler targeted popular Republican Gov. Myron T. Herrick, who had the audacity to challenge provisions of a prohibitionist Anti-Saloon League bill. Wheeler, Snowdon writes, held hundreds of dry rallies in favor of Herrick's opponent and "scurrilously accused Herrick of being in the pocket of the drinks industry." Seeking to make an example of the governor, Wheeler marshaled tens of thousands of churchgoers, who flooded into the polls and bounced Herrick out of office.
The result? Practical political hypocrisy on the issue of alcohol. Wheeler's effort, Snowdon explains, was "a bleak warning to wet politicians that it was safest to drink in private and support prohibition in public.... Politicians knew that they could placate their tormentors by supporting dry laws, but they also knew they could placate drinkers by failing to enforce them"
The wet/dry debate was a key issue in American politics for the quarter centuries before...