At the beginning of the twentieth century, wise and well-informed people must have said to themselves that this last century of the second millennium must end on solid ground. Canada (or, rather, the Province of Prince Edward Island) was the first, starting in 1900 and continuing for almost fifty years, to bring in the “merry-go-round” of prohibitions that have troubled our terrestrial globe. However, let us look at far greater aspirations: known to harbour a great number of drunks, Tsarist Russia undertook a merciless battle against drinkers of all hues, starting in 1914.
The Colour of Vodka: Neither White nor Red.
The advent of the soviet era in October 1917 did not repeal the imperial measure, which banned only direct sales of alcohol (with an exception made for restaurants). It would not be until Stalin (anyone else would have been an insult) and a few murders between friends for the measure to fall out of favour. Gorbachev, between 1985 and 1987, tried to reactivate some prohibitive measures … not very successfully and even with some unexpected negative effects: bottles of vodka replaced official currency in informal economic exchanges.
Finland: Another Land of Inebriates …
Mentioning the case of Finland (and the Finns) is a little delicate if one does not want to fall into reductive and pernicious stereotypes. Nevertheless, a cut-price summing up of this distant country whose inhabitants can stay drunk for six months at a time, would incline someone to imagine a great banner at the entrance to Helsinki airport reading “Tervetuloa Humalaan” or “Welcome to Lushland.” An ascetic and Mediterranean to boot, like me, would be most unwelcome … In this world where the sun almost never rises (or the opposite), in this polar region, where humanity survives only through its ingenuity, drinking is not a simple amusement, a pantomime of refined degustation … Over there, if you are there, you must drink “like a fish” to prove to yourself and others that you are alive and can survive in the most austere of the Nordic lands.
In 1919, The Finnish government, probably made up of people who “knew how to drink,” decided to ban the sale, production, and importation of alcohol … all the better to increase the wealth of bootleggers. The 6 January 1932 edition of L’Impartial, a Swiss daily newspaper known for its sobriety, bore the headline: “Failure of a Methodology: The Finish People Condemn Prohibition.” The columnist also related the near inability of the Finnish government to apply the prohibitive measures to the production and sale of alcohol and the pernicious effects this eventually caused:
“To justify their appeal, the petitioners first cited the splendid deals the bootleggers had done, adding that, money allowing, it had always been possible in any locality to procure alcohol. They emphasized moreover that, for its part, the Finnish State had had to spend hundreds of millions of markaa to enforce the law or, at least, try to have it respected. […] Let us then salute the Finnish referendum as a victory for common sense and reason over fanaticism and excessive restrictions on human freedom.”
The Most Famous Prohibition
America, before the arrival of those “Cat-lick” Irish and those miserly Scots, was pure and clean in itself, as the good founding fathers had wished it to be. It took the influx of poorly educated migrants, with the DNA of drinkers and highly specialized in the construction of portable stills, for the very puritan New World to experience its first women and children as described in the poem/prayer of Francis Jammes:
It must be said that, among the fervent partisans of a full and strict abolition of alcohol, there were a great many women. Besides provoking disorder, the evil drink burned a significant hole in family budgets. Steered by a malevolent hand, the good family man, who should have returned to the fold as soon as his workday was done, would wander waywardly into public houses where he would get drunk and buy rounds for his drinking buddies while the rest of his household awaited him with empty bellies.
Yearning for the good old days when people could sip lemonade as a family, on the porches of colonial mansions, and see a few uppity negroes swinging from the beflowered branches of a majestic Quercus alba, the US government, in the midst of the 1914–18 upheaval, suggested prohibition and announced it in its eighteenth amendment on 16 January 1919 … Fast-forward a few months and, with great administrative logic, the nineteenth amendment, brought in an astonishing advancement of women’s rights by giving American ladies the vote, quite some way behind those blowhard New Zealanders (1893), those good-for-nothing Australians (1901), those degenerate Finns (1906), those Bolshevik Russians (1917), but at least well before those genius French (1944 – you can never be too cautious). This was not a matter of choosing between drinking a sneaky glass and risking being a candidate for Alcoholics Anonymous or giving women the vote, but a matter of importance and order of precedence.
The magic formula, intended to put the shine back on the coat of arms of an America only just discovering the noxious effects of delirium tremens, soon staled in the foul, wine-sodden air of the clandestine bars and brothels that pullulated like fleas leaving the still-warm carcass of a poisoned rodent. Action, reaction … as the sadistic warden of Alcatraz would have said. And it was in that grim jail that Al-Capone would breathe his last, the chubby-cheeked, paunchy little crook who, through plunder and mass murder, secured himself a fortune so legendary that it would later prove a great incentive for many would-be gangsters. Stuck with small-scale rackets after the war, they would remember the tricks of the mass contraband trade when another prohibition was announced, this time on drugs, which would put them on the fast track to obscene fortunes.
Perhaps most importantly, US prohibition was what led to a small-time apothecary in Atlanta, having lost the right to sell his codeine-laced wine, replacing the Bordeaux-like mixture in his bottles with coloured sugar-water, grated kola nuts, and a hearty dose of cocaine. Coca-Cola would smash its sales records during the period when alcohol sales were banned. Those honest citizens, who did not want to break the law, were no longer drunk, but stoned, which is quite different.
The costly operation to ensure the prohibitive measures were properly enforced ended up having practically no results from a moral point of view while passing down, like a cruel birth defect, the appalling corruption that still today disfigures the workings of a state that was irreproachable in the days of the founding fathers. A black-and-white time past when someone, draped in the immaculate silks of the White House, could roll into a courtroom without worrying about being bankrupted by laundry costs. High society at that time had not yet experienced France’s May 1968, where the one thing it was easy to take away, between two teargas-infused slogans, was that it was forbidden to forbid
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