Thursday, July 14, 2011

the more things change

I just finished reading "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" by Daniel Okrent, a meticulously researched and sprightly written history. I learned so much from this book (did you know the Founding Fathers were sots? Jefferson, Washington and the rest drank like fishes. Did you know the oh-so-Puritan Pilgrims drank heavily and brought more alcohol on the Mayflower than water?).

But what struck me the most was how, due to a lack of education, I have been misperceiving American politics. I went to school in a very rural school district, where our "social studies" education covered the same limited ground every single year. Every September we opened a new social studies text and started reading about the Pilgrims, and every June we stopped midway through the book at Reconstruction. Never, never, never did I hear a word about either World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, or even suffrage or Prohibition. None of those topics were ever raised. I often think of my own education when I hear other countries criticized for what they leave out of their education (I have repeatedly heard Japan harshly ripped for failing to teach its children about the wartime excesses committed in China, but meanwhile in my American school we never studied how we dropped not one but two atomic bombs on Japan).

Anyhow, beyond learning how closely suffrage and Prohibition were linked (I had no clue that the great suffragettes were Prohibitionists and indeed some of them turned to suffrage after being rejected, on the basis of their gender, from the Prohibition movement), I was most spellbound by how much the politics of that age reminded me of current times. I have for some time been deeply concerned that politics have become too religious and that the far right is moving into new territory, injecting religious doctrine into textbooks (and again I note about my own childhood: the word "evolution" was never spoken in my school. We never learned a thing about it), making "family values" a fetish. It turns out that there is no new thing under the sun. American politics were just like that back in the 1910s and 1920s. Schoolbooks contained horrible, morality-based, science-be-damned falsehoods about alcohol, such as the "fact" that a single sip of alcohol tears flesh off a drinker's throat and that all habitual beer drinkers die of "dropsy." Religion and arguments about the family, the poor, beleaguered, threatened American family monopolized public discourse. It was all so very, very familiar.

I feel considerably educated now about an era of time I knew so little about, and I feel reassured, in an odd way. Our current "culture wars" are nothing new. As a nation, we've bungled and bumbled through much the same thing already.


Dread Pirate Davi said...

My eyes have certainly been opened since I started going back to school. I'm actually taking American Politics at the moment; good stuff.

the Drunken Housewife said...

Well, let me know if you have a good book recommendation. I learned a lot about the Russian revolution & about Spain in college, and I did a political geography class focusing on South Africa. On my own I've read a ton about World Wars I & II. But I still have some huge areas of ignorance.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently reading "Last Call" as well. It's very good.

Ellen Spertus said...

Want to borrow our copy of A People's History of the United States or Lies My Teacher Told Me?

the Drunken Housewife said...

Ellen, that would be so perfect. I tried to check that very same book out of the Mechanics' Inst. before I went to Camp Mather, but it was missing. I think someone stole it.

GodsKid said...

I'm with you, on what my social studies covered. Exactly the same stuff, ending before 1900 each year. And I've been learning about WWI and WWII and the holocaust on my own. I feel compelled to read all the holocaust stories that are coming out, now that the survivors realize they are the only ones left to let us know what happened.
Then again -- I'm more capable of understanding now that I'm older. I hated history until I turned 30 or so. :) It was all dates and wars. Now I can see the people involved.

2amsomewhere said...

I heard the interview with Okrent on Fresh Air and it sounded like an fascinating read.

I recall reading about the Women's Christian Temperance Union back in my high school US history class, but there was no mention of the racial and ethnic dimensions of the push for prohibition.

I think one of the biggest disservices that cultural conservatives wrought was the reinforcement of a collective amnesia, wherein the social fabric was frayed by increased government intervention.

A more mature examination of the past reveals that there were plenty of social ills that were either fostered by "traditional values" or at least turned a blind eye thereonto.


Coupons said...

I went to a rural school as well, and while we learned more than that, a lot of stuff was still glossed over. And as I'm slowly finding out, much of the stuff they did teach was little more than propaganda.