Thursday, August 11, 2011

Making illegal conduct legal, Tennessee voted to repeal Prohibition 78 years ago today

When Nashville's beloved 30-year-old bookstore Davis-Kidd was in its final hours of operation last December, I took away a box of books, one of which was Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, by Daniel Okrent.

Today, August 11, 2011, is the 78th anniversary of Tennessee's vote to end Prohibition.  Last Call is a history of how we came to Prohibition and how we abandoned it. It is a great book. You really should read it (or in my case, listen to the audio version of it).

In fact, this is my single most important book recommendation of 2011 for those who are passionate about improving federal immigration policy.  The stories of the Anti-Saloon League and its disproportionately large influence are a roadmap to political power in America.  The stories of the general public largely tolerating bootleggers, widely consuming the fruits of illegal labor but disproportionately drawing the attention of enforcement at the lower rungs of society, and being subjected to complaints of rum-runners "invading" our borders who might only be halted by the erection of a wall (mostly along the East Cost) are just as much a parallel to the modern day as the late-19th century whipping-up of the public to believe that immigrants are more prone to vice than Americans:

There are so many times you will whack your forehead at the echoes of Prohibition's history and debate in modern-day immigration politics, that your head might hurt a little when you're done. Since I like to think about communications strategy, I'm actually a little jealous that Prohibition had such an excellent shorthand for its proponents and opponents - the "wet" and the "dry" camps - that I've tried to come up with similarly tangible and abbreviated labels for our immigration debate. (My feeble thought is, if one side is fighting for indivisibility, as in the pledge of allegiance, or "Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds," as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, and if the practical result of the opposite sentiment is to generate outsiders out of those who live among us, the two can be classified as "in" and "out." You can see why this is not my day job.)

As for the condition of the Volunteer State 78 years after the repeal of Prohibition, we still have Blue Laws that prevent alcohol from being sold at certain times on Sunday, and we still don't sell wine in grocery stores. But at least on August 11, 1933 - during the Great Depression - we gave up on the idea that making criminals out of wide swaths of ordinary people was viable public policy.

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