Part One of Ken Burns’s latest documentary, Prohibition, aired last night, and it was quite good and somewhat enlightening. I had always known that it was one of those rare moments in American history when evangelicals and feminists had joined forces to make the rest of the nation miserable (unlike today, when they make only each other miserable). I knew that Episcopalians and Lutherans had opposed Prohibition, seeing no reason to bring religion into it. And I was also aware that both radicals and reactionaries favored the Amendment as a means of crushing the spirit of the other side. What I did not know, and for which knowledge I will forever be grateful to Mr. Burns, was that “temperance” was spelled with only one “r.”
Most Sunday evenings I prefer to watch something in keeping with the intention of the Sabbath rest, like fly-fishing shows or National Geographic specials about wildebeest or Gordon Ramsay. (My punctuation may be off there.) But last night I was drawn to Burns’s work not only because his previous films — on the Civil War, baseball, and jazz — had put me to sleep without fail, and I was badly in need of some shut-eye, but because in this case the subject held a very personal significance for me.
Yes, I have a confession to make to you, my readers. It is not easy for me to admit. I have worried that you would think less of me were you to learn of this deep, dark secret, and so cease paying visits here, preferring instead to devote your time to helping the poor or finding a cure for juvenile diabetes.
I can, however, hold back no longer.
I am a teatotaler.
Yes, it’s true. I do not drink. Never have. Can’t stand the stuff. Don’t like being around people who do drink. A liquor store is as attractive to me as an insane asylum or a kindergarten under quarantine (but I repeat myself).
O the horrors of liquor, lager, hootch, draft, firewater, moonshine, ardent spirits, intoxicants, potation, libation, booze, juice, tipple, John Barleycorn, the hard stuff, the sauce, grog, rotgut, swill, Dutch courage, white lightning, and Showtime’s original programming.
I came from a family of non- or indifferent drinkers. A bottle of Christmas Scotch would remain unopened in a closet for a decade. A glass of wine with a Sunday meal was as great an indulgence as setting fire to a garrulous neighbor. A swig of champagne at a wedding or, preferably, a funeral was almost surreal, especially since we were never invited to either.
Lest you think I make no distinction between the occasional imbiber, the casual drinker, and the miserable boozer lying facedown in the gutter, his festering sores food for rabid dogs, having drunk his paycheck before beating his wife, children, and exotic fish, mocking the very wrath of God that awaits to hurl his desiccated soul into the fires of a hell made just for him, allow me to put your mind at ease. I do not. But neither do I judge. That’s what star chambers are for.
I say Prohibition was a noble, if futile, experiment — futile because, as we know from the great Apostle, the law only incites, while great nagging drives one to distraction and an early grave.
And so, despite my detestation of alcohol and all its works, and my repulsion at the mere thought of the gaggle of drunkards who roam the streets of our fair cities, towns, and amusement parks, harassing passersby for breath mints and directions to the can, were another Prohibition Amendment to come to a vote, I would urge my congresspersons to at the very least abstain, assuming the idiots were sober enough to remember the route to the Capitol in the first place.
As for me, I will continue to protest the evils of demon rum in my own small way, by maintaining a rectitude suffused with a self-satisfied pride so off-putting it can only drive an honest man to drink.
It’s the least I can do. And I always strive to do the very least I can.