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The world of the Order of the Air

Imagine a social issue so divisive and so important that it's been a litmus test for candidates for decades, THE issue on which elections turn, the cultural divide that is a shorthand for region, ethnicity and religion, the issue which ends friendships and divides towns into communities for and against, an issue battled hotly in schools and legislatures alike.

That issue? Temperance.

It's hard to believe today that Temperance was once that important, spawning activist societies like the Daughters of Temperance, a women's organization with tens of thousands of members dedicated to outlawing all alcoholic beverages everywhere on earth. It's hard to believe that Temperance was the single issue that every candidate had to address, the critical social and cultural question -- for or against? The Temperance movement was so strong that it achieved what no other activist group in the history of the US has managed. It passed a Constitutional amendment outlawing alcoholic beverages in the entire United States. This was Prohibition.

Today, we remember Prohibition as a freaky social experiment gone awry, a sadly misplaced attempt to legislate morality that was a colossal failure. Maybe, we think, it was some strange Puritan thing? Actually, it was strongly supported by women's organizations (including Susan B. Anthony) and the labor movement. It was supported by rural states. It was supported by older people, by the educated, and by many Protestant churches. Whether you drank or not, whether you supported Prohibition or not, was the single defining issue on where you stood in the culture wars.

Alma, Lewis, Jerry and Mitch drink. This is as defining for them as it would be if they were tokers in 1970. Who supports legalized alcohol? Catholics, Jews, the poor, immigrants, the young -- people who are outside the mainstream. Drinking marks Alma as outside the women's movements of the day, just as does her support of Free Love. Drinking marks Mitch as outside his culture of origin, a renegade, a stoner from a good family. Drinking marks Lewis as Catholic, Hispanic, an outsider. Drinking is part of Jerry's gay culture, a night world that's so far beyond social acceptability as to be invisible.

And that's really bizarre to the modern reader, isn't it? That an adult having a drink is such a powerful cultural statement of identity? In eighty years our divisive cultural markers will be just as obsolete, and no doubt seem as inexplicable and antique as Temperance does today.


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Nov. 10th, 2013 03:33 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's so true. I'd just add two things (this being kind of a hobby-horse of mine, having done a whole bunch of bootlegger research for other projects).

First, there were sad and solid reasons that both women's organizations and labor thought Temperance was a good idea. The cliche of the husband drinking away his entire week's wages on Thursday night and beating his wife and children if they dared protest was a cliche for a reason. (Out of a group of 5 guides at one historic house museum where I worked, three of us had a story like that in our families.) Prohibition was manifestly not the answer, but the problems it tried to address were real.

Second, you can't forget the class aspects. Looking at contemporary discussions of Prohibition, what becomes really clear is that the Progressive elements who believed that drink was bad for everyone and who were themselves fervent non-drinkers were supported by old-money conservative elements who thought Prohibition was an excellent idea for the working class, and had no intention of abiding by it themselves.

And that's the flip side of Jerry's drinking. He's not only part of a gay bar culture, but he is, by virtue of his Harvard degree and his employment at the Met, uneasily and contingently part of the upper class, to whom those rules shouldn't apply.
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