Review of W. J. Rorabaugh, 'Prohibition: A Concise History'

Has anyone ever compared a law to the 18th Amendment and meant it as praise?

That’s the one criminalizing “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes.” Ratified in 1919 and repealed near the close of 1933, Prohibition has become the quintessential example of public policy at its most catastrophically misguided: a perfect storm of the counterproductive and the self-defeating. The images of that period that come to mind tend not to be of sober or law-abiding people, with the possible exception of Eliot Ness. And as W. J. Rorabaugh reminds us in Prohibition: A Concise History (Oxford University Press), Ness was something of a publicity hound, eager to claim credit for ending Al Capone’s career. Minus the spin, Ness and the handpicked agents in his Untouchables squad stood as evidence of how much the illegal liquor trade had corrupted the rest of law enforcement.

Hence the more or less consensus judgment that the whole episode amounted to an unrealistic attempt to legislate morality -- a legacy of Puritanism, perhaps, which H. L. Mencken called “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy.” (Mencken got through Prohibition by learning to brew his own beer.) In the 1960s, Joseph Gusfield offered a more sociological variant of this interpretation in Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement, treating Prohibition as an effort to shore up the waning authority of groups threatened by social change. Besides giving the force of law to the old-fashioned American virtue of abstemiousness, the 18th Amendment delivered a blow to urban immigrant communities such as the Irish and the Germans, who accepted drinking as normal behavior.

Historians have debunked much of the received wisdom about this side of the American experience -- but without the general public noticing, for the most part. On that score, Rorabaugh’s “concise history” might prove more effective in changing minds than any of the monographs he and his colleagues have published.

For one thing, the whole “lingering Puritanism” or “Yankee abstinence” mythology about the roots of Prohibition should have bitten the dust a long time ago. “Drink is in itself a good creature of God, and to be received with thankfulness,” preached Increase Mather, the father of Cotton, “but the abuse of drink is from Satan …” Virtue was in moderation, not abstinence. Rorabaugh includes a telling story about the political education of one of the Founding Fathers:

In 1755, when George Washington ran for the Virginia House of Burgesses, the colonial legislature, he neglected to offer the customary liquor, and the voters declined to elect him. Three years later, Washington provided 155 gallons of rum, punch, wine, hard cider, and beer. He won with 307 votes. Each vote had cost him almost half a gallon of alcohol.

But colonial Americans were quite restrained compared to their descendants in the early republic. “By the 1820s,” Rorabaugh notes, “the typical adult white American male consumed nearly half a pint of whisky a day,” roughly three times today’s rate. And if Americans drank a lot of whiskey, that was in part because there was a lot of whiskey for them to drink: it was more profitable to turn grain into spirits than to transport it. Unlike milk, hard liquor did not spoil quickly, and it was less likely to spread disease than the water available in urban areas.

But heavy consumption took its toll, both on individual health and public order. The rise of a movement to discourage drinking was arguably less a “symbolic crusade” than an attempt to deal with quite concrete problems. And it did so to noticeable effect, with alcohol consumption falling 50 percent between 1825 and 1850. The author points out that this figure represents not reduced drinking per capita so much as an increase in the number of people who rejected alcohol entirely.

And so a kind of virtuous circle began to turn. Teetotaling became a middle-class norm: a condition of employment, marriageability and access to credit. Local governments, “strongly supported by dry forces,” began to provide clean drinking water to city dwellers. Coffee became the beverage of choice -- fuel for the social mobility of the hardworking.

The other side of this emerging value system was that the rest of the population consumed as much alcohol as much as it ever did. And the expanding economy of a growing country created a new business model as drinkers developed a taste for beer: “Major breweries established tied-house saloons,” writes Rorabaugh; “that is, the brewers owned or financially controlled the saloons, and each saloon-keeper agreed to sell only one brand of beer. The brewer provided the building, furniture, fixtures, and inventory in return for monthly rent … A national brewer might locate four or six saloons on a single block to capture foot traffic and keep out rivals.”

Distillers did the same for their product. To turn a profit, saloon keepers sometimes ran sidelines in gambling and prostitution. Another option (not mutually exclusive by any means) was for the saloon to become a voting place allied to a local political machine. One clergyman characterized saloons as “the most fiendish, corrupt, and hell-soaked institution that ever crawled out of the slime of the eternal pit,” which seems a little overblown, though not an entirely groundless assessment by any means.

If the temperance advocates of the first half of the 19th century tried to strengthen the moral fiber of the individual citizen against the temptations of alcohol, the Prohibition movement regarded drinking as only part of the problem. Prohibitionists were up against a confluence of liquor manufacturers, corrupt politicians and criminal predators. Passing laws against the sale or use of alcoholic drinks on the local or state level was one approach -- an effective one, it seemed for a while, especially in rural areas. But improved transportation and interstate commerce undermined the local option. Only on a national scale could the scourge be defeated.

And not even then, suffice it to say. Rorabaugh is no sympathizer for the Prohibitionist cause, but he seems very evenhanded in presenting why and how its advocates thought and acted as they did. Insofar as any figure represents the Prohibitionist movement in the American popular memory, it’s probably Carrie Nation -- an enraged woman taking her ax to a bar to smash the bottles and furniture. She was hardly typical, however, and Rorabaugh says she was an embarrassment to others in the movement. On the other hand, she also re-enacted her “hatchetations” on Broadway in sellout performances, suggesting she understood a thing or two about cultivating the public’s attention.

But what carried the movement to victory was the far more subtle role of a lawyer from Ohio named Wayne Wheeler, head of the Anti-Saloon League. “Wheeler insisted that prohibition not become a partisan issue,” Rorabaugh says. “If one party went wet, the wet party might eventually gain power and destroy prohibition. To prevent that result, dry majorities were needed in both parties.”

Under his leadership, the ASL shepherded the 18th Amendment through Congress and ratification during World War I -- probably the only time it could have passed, Rorabaugh suggests. The movement’s victory was also its defeat: however much credit it’s granted for laudable intentions, Prohibition had no effect at all.

Right? Well, again, the facts prove a little more complex than that. “An American born in 1900 could not drink legally until the age of 33,” the author points out, “past the age when use normally peaks. Consumption drops with each decade of adult life, and by age sixty-five a majority of people are abstainers.” Per capita consumption was reduced by about a third following repeal, and only returned to pre-Prohibition levels in the late 1970s. That hardly means the effort was a good idea, but it had an effect -- even, to some degree, the effect intended.

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Historians Pledge Action on Harassment

In a new report to members of the American Historical Association, Mary Beth Norton, AHA president, Mary Donlon Alger Professor of American History and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University, pledged action on sexual harassment -- including developing a procedure that could expel offenders from AHA events. While the association “has long been on record as decrying sexual harassment in employment,” Norton said, that “statement clearly needs expanding and updating.”

Norton said leaders within the association have been discussing the matter since the fall and recently decided to survey members about their experiences with harassment at past conventions. The association also held a session on harassment within the field at its annual meeting in January, during which members requested that AHA develop “best practices” to guide historians and their employers. It has therefore become clear, Norton said, that “rather than one statement, the AHA needed to adopt several: one on sexual harassment, setting forth principles and complaint procedures for our conventions and other meetings we organized, and others on such topics as hiring and mentoring, outlining principles and best practices in contexts over which we have no direct control.”

Members of AHA’s governing council have agreed on the basic outlines of a new procedure to promote appropriate behavior at association events, Norton said, and attendees should be required to consent to related guidelines during registration. An ombuds team also has been created to receive complaints about harassment at meetings. Possible sanctions against offenders include expulsion from the event. The statements and new procedure for addressing harassment will be drafted by an AHA Council committee. “We anticipate approval by the Council in June and full implementation at the 2019 AHA annual meeting in Chicago,” Norton said. 

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Men Talking About Women in Math

No, it wasn’t satire. A poster inviting “all women who love math” to an all-male panel on the topic was widely criticized at Brigham Young University and beyond this week.

The university’s math department soon responded to the controversy on Facebook, saying that the poster was made by a student organization and had since been updated.

A university spokesperson referred a request for comment to the math department’s response, as well as to commentary from an undergraduate student who said she made the poster. 

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Lego Grad Student Is Now an Assistant Professor

Known for his grimly humorous depictions of graduate student life in Lego blocks, and, of late, more politically charged messages, the social media figure Lego Grad Student was uncharacteristically joyful Wednesday in sharing that he’d accepted an assistant professorship (or at least his anonymous human creator had).

Lego Grad Student, who studied the social sciences at a large university on the West Coast, spent two years on the job market -- and just about as long making people laugh and cringe online. He debuted his Lego portraits in mid-2016 and quickly developed a major following: some 40,700 fans on Twitter alone.

Lego Grad Student’s creator said Wednesday that some in his new department know about his “other identity,” since several graduate students and professors mentioned it when he was visiting. Still, he said, he’d like to remain “semi-anonymous.” 

Asked about what his success communicates, Lego Grad Student said that he hopes it “provides some inspiration or hope to others.” But after going on the job market twice, he said, “I've also come to realize that the process is so arduous and uncertain that my words of support can only do so much to help endure the market season. It's the toughest experience I've had in recent memory.”

As for a possible Lego Assistant Professor, the jury is still out.

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British universities object to extra charges for articles that are more than 20 years old


British universities protest, and publisher drops plan for extra charges for articles more than 20 years old.

Suggestions for how to end gender inequity in service work (opinion)

Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh suggests some structural tactics for ending gender inequity in service work.

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A college president reflects on liberal education in China and the U.S. (opinion)

The question took me by surprise. I had just finished lecturing to about 75 undergraduates at Peking University on the virtues of American-style pragmatic liberal education. My book Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters had recently been translated into Chinese, and I was on a speaking tour trying to persuade students and their families that in a society changing so rapidly it made the most sense to pursue a broad education in which you would learn how to take multiple perspectives on shifting, complex problems and opportunities -- to learn how to learn. I argued that from Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson to Jane Addams and W. E. B. Du Bois, American thinkers had developed ideas about pragmatic liberal learning that are powerfully relevant today.

The question, from a young man who had been furiously taking notes throughout my talk, was whether a liberal education really made students think for themselves -- as I had argued -- or whether it just turned students into liberals. Encouraged by my visible interest and surprise, he asked more pointedly if liberal learning didn’t contribute to the divisiveness that was currently afflicting American society by reinforcing a sense, for some people, of superiority and, for others, that elites with fancy diplomas were looking down on them.

These issues were not unfamiliar to me, but I hadn’t expected an undergraduate in China to raise them. The idea that college campuses have become places of political indoctrination is hotly debated in the United States, but I was surprised to find concern about indoctrination expressed in China, where the state overtly strives for a serious level of ideological conformity.

The young man’s question about political conformity led to an interesting discussion about the general tendency of students to conform to the values of their educational system. My audience at PKU was filled with students who had excelled at the national exam and gained entrance to this, the most prestigious university in the country. These were insightful young men and women who knew how to read their teachers so as to provide them with the responses they’d like best. They knew how to succeed on exams, and they knew how to succeed at pleasing even those professors who said they wanted critically thinking contrarians. In this, they weren’t that different from the bright students I encounter at colleges and universities in America.

Do professors in the United States, in fact, expect ideological or intellectual conformity even when they call for critical thinking? That is a perennial problem for anyone who believes that education should liberate one from dependence on someone else’s thinking-- that learning should foster open-ended inquiry and self-reliance. And I had to confess to the student in Beijing that we may indeed have a bias in the American academy that makes intellectual diversity less likely, as teachers equate thoughtful responses with responses that support their own worldviews. Finding ways to challenge those views, encouraging heterodoxy, is the mandate of an educational philosophy, such as pragmatic liberal education, that values the instigation of new modes of inquiry and of creativity. Discussion of implicit bias on American college campuses -- be the focus on identity or ideology -- is a positive sign that higher education is acknowledging and wrestling with this problem.

The young man’s second question was equally challenging. Was a liberal education a pathway to elitism, cementing economic inequality and enabling a fortunate few to assume an attitude of haughty privilege? That is certainly possible, I admitted. One of the reasons many families want to send their children to top-ranked colleges is that they are highly selective -- they reject lots of people, the thinking goes, so they must be good! More than that, the student was asking whether those who enroll in such institutions contribute, unwittingly or not, to a national climate of hostile divisiveness. Throughout American history, writers have argued that while education was essential for a healthy democracy, it could also lead to the corruption of pretentious elites condescending to their fellow citizens (if they recognized them at all).

My response focused on Jane Addams, one of the important pragmatist thinkers and activists I’d written about in Beyond the University. Addams saw that sophisticated modes of education often stifled the ability to see things from another’s point of view. She recognized that strong thinking often became self-protective and detached from the concerns of others. Her contribution to liberal education was to insist on the development of empathy and the sympathetic imagination; she underscored participation in civic life as a vehicle for liberal learning. Emphasis upon humane responsiveness and social engagement were key to ensuring that the forms of inquiry that are part and parcel of a liberal education didn’t become parochial and elitist.

No sooner had I finished my appeal to Addams but a young woman sitting up front asked if I wasn’t really just echoing a campus cultural bubble when I spoke of liberal learning in such idealistic ways. Ah, so talk of the bubble has made its way to China, I thought. Sure, I admitted to the brave undergraduate who had so directly challenged the foreign speaker, it may well be efforts to nurture free inquiry have led to somewhat protective bubbles. But the American tradition of liberal education that I was talking about held that real inquiry had to be tested beyond the university, that real learning had to be relevant beyond the classroom and the borders of the campus. If what I had described sounded idealistic at times, that might, in part, be because I am a university president with a tendency for cheerleading. But, I explained, it might also be because this American educational tradition took a bet on what pragmatist philosopher John Dewey called “practical idealism,” a bet on the value of situating learning in relation to society and the aim of contributing to its well-being.

The discussion in Beijing led me to reflect that teachers and students in China, like those in the United States, are thinking hard about how to avoid conformity and indoctrination without just retreating to a campus bubble that has no relevance to the nonacademic world. In America, we often read about social justice warriors refusing to listen to points of view from outside the campus mainstream, but we should pay more attention to those engaged students who are creating opportunities in education, health care and access to technology for citizens beyond the university’s walls. Rather than focusing on why kids today don’t have the same fundamentalist commitment to the free market approach to speech as boomers claim to have always had, we should recognize how our campuses abound with productive nonconformists, practical idealists starting up companies and purpose-driven organizations. In China, more than half a million students each year study abroad, and scores of thousands are majoring in foreign languages and culture. Notwithstanding the central government’s frightening efforts to enforce narrow forms of political and vocational training, exposure to other societies will enrich the country by disrupting increasingly bureaucratized homogeneity.

I left the lecture hall heartened that students in Beijing, like many across the United States, hope that higher education will be pragmatic without being conformist, and that the college years will inspire them to think for themselves in ways that will be significant to others. A pragmatic liberal education promises to engage with issues that students will surely have to deal with beyond their university years, while refusing to just be a training program that will, in the short run, slide them into the existing slots offered by the status quo. It has often fulfilled this promise in the past, and it is strong enough today to welcome and weather tough questions -- from the United States or from China -- about its future.

Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University and author, most recently, of Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters.

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Scholar says new book on China's 'leftover women' fails to acknowledge her years of research in the area

Scholar says a new book on China’s “leftover women” fails to acknowledge her years of research in the area -- and the fact that both authors have corresponded on the topic since 2011.

Polk State College Accused of Censoring Art Instructor's Anti-Trump Work

The Foundation for Individual Rights is challenging Polk State College’s alleged censorship of an art instructor’s anti-Trump work. In a statement Tuesday, FIRE accused the Florida college of rejecting Serhat Tanyolacar’s submission to a faculty art exhibit in an attempt to “childproof” the campus. Tanyolacar’s piece, called “Death of Innocence,” depicts poets, writers, President Trump and other political figures engaging in sexual activity. Tanyolacar said the art is intended to highlight “moral corruption and moral dichotomy” and provoke debate, but Polk State informed him it could not be displayed because the campus offers classes to local high school students and “we feel that that particular piece would be too controversial to display at this time.”

FIRE and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Polk State president Angela Garcia Falconetti last week, asking her to reconsider the college's decision. A spokesperson for Polk State said it had no comment. Tanyolacar was involved in another censorship debate over his art at the University of Iowa in 2014, when he was a visiting assistant professor there.

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Presidents of online institutions propose new language for federal distance education requirements

As senators prepare to rewrite the Higher Education Act, leaders from seven institutions weigh in with proposed definitions for distance and correspondence education.


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