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I’m Minorly Obsessed with Prohibition Right Now

The best part about being a history major in college is that it allows you to just steep in your own nerdom like some kind of teabag of dweeb. It’s also how I learned that Richard Nixon used to employ the phrase, “Let’s get down to the nut-cutting,” and now I try to use it as often as possible.

Recently, my historical obsession is Prohibition, the bizarre decade-plus-long experiment in banning the sale and production of alcoholic beverages, and my timing could not be more perfect. First of all, thanks to a friend who works at LivingSocial, I spent an evening at a Prohibition-themed party on a boat cruising around Navy Pier. From what I can ascertain, LivingSocial is kinda like Groupon for drunk, horny people. This party was a cross-promotion for the new season of “Boardwalk Empire,” which looks freaking cool as freak based on the Season 2 trailer (check it out above). I’m somewhat annoyed that I’m slogging through the last disappointing seasons of “Sopranos” and “Battlestar Gallactica.”

(Note to LivingSocial: What about a “Battlestar Gallactica” party in some filthy steel bunker where all the food is carefully rationed and the hot blonde girls can beat the pulp out of you because they’re secret Cylon agents? Jesus, that sounds great.)

Anyway, after hand-rolled cigar-smoking, whiskey-tasting, Manhattan-sampling, and fake gambling (I still don’t understand how craps works at all), I was way too overstimulated for a school night and went home to finish the last three hours of Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new PBS documentary “Prohibition” (see preview below). I covered Burns and Novick’s appearance at the Chicago History Museum for RedEye, where there were also Prohibition-era cocktails and beer at a reception prior to the talk (do you see a theme emerging here about journalists?).

Debuting next week, “Prohibition” is great in that very Burnsian style of distilling history into a rapidly paced story that breezes by cinematically and digests easily. As Burns pointed out at the talk, Chicago was also a very important character during this period in American history mostly due to the larger-than-life Al Capone, who helped turn Chicago’s streets into a war zone. According to the documentary, the notorious New York gangster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano visited Chicago and pronounced it “A real goddamn crazy place.”

Perhaps what fascinates me most about the history and legacy of Prohibition is the very obvious lessons it serves up for all kinds of current issues. Prohibition taught us that attempting to legislate morality is not only a waste of time but is the prime example of the law of unintended consequences, as it unleashed violence, lawlessness, and contempt for authority. Prohibition is one of the primary reasons we created the income tax to replace the revenue that would be lost from tax revenue on alcohol sales, which once made up 70% of federal revenue. It also offers what should be an obvious lesson about why the war on drugs has been a nearly unfathomable waste of resources.

Yet the temperance movement was also one of the most successful single-issue movements in our history, managing to do one of the hardest things in the American political system, which is to amend the Constitution. In fact, the only movement that did a little better was the movement to repeal the 18th Amendment. This offers all kinds of lessons today for those of us who advocate for major society-altering reforms, from the complete restructuring of how our elections are financed to putting a price on carbon emissions.

But let’s get down to the nut-cutting: the best thing to come out of Prohibition? “Boardwalk Empire” looks totally badass.

Watch the full episode. See more Ken Burns.