The Fuzzy Moral Line Between Drinkers and Bartenders
Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition, by Mark Lawrence Schrad, Oxford University Press, 725 pages, $34.95
Mark Lawrence Schrad thinks Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding vigilante who rampaged through saloons at the beginning of the 20th century, gets a bum rap. While Nation was “easy to mock as a Bible-thumping ‘crank,’ ‘a freak,’ ‘a lunatic,’ or a ‘puritanical killjoy,'” Schrad says, she was actually a courageous and kindly woman devoted to “justice, love, and benevolence.” Her enemy “was not the drink or the drinker, but ‘the man who sells,'” Schrad, a Villanova political scientist, writes in Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. “This is important.”
I’m not sure that distinction, which underpins Schrad’s broader effort to redeem the reputation of alcohol prohibitionists, is as important as he thinks. I’m not even sure it makes sense. Without drinkers, after all, there would be no brewers, vintners, distillers, liquor merchants, or tavern keepers. In Schrad’s telling, the customer is not king; he is barely a serf.
Schrad’s defense of prohibition depends on the notion that people have no real control over whether or how much they drink. Schrad, who confesses to a fondness for Manhattans but nevertheless seems to have avoided a disastrous descent into alcoholism, surely knows that is not true. Yet without that fiction, his distinction between “the drinker” and “the man who sells” dissolves like the sugar in a well-mixed old fashioned.
Schrad’s exhaustive study, the product of prodigious and groundbreaking research, nevertheless complicates the conventional understanding of alcohol prohibition, which sees it as a distinctly American and reactionary phenomenon. According to this view, Schrad says, the movement to ban alcohol was “the last-gasp backlash of conservative, rural, native-born Protestants against the rising tide of urbanization, immigration and multiculturalism in turn-of-the-century America.” To the contrary, he shows, the movement spanned the globe, often pitting “subaltern” groups against elites and native leaders against colonizers. “Prohibitionism,” Schrad writes, “wasn’t moralizing ‘thou shalt nots,’ but a progressive shield for marginalized, suffering, and oppressed peoples to defend themselves from further exploitation.”
Even as he strives to correct caricatures of prohibitionists, Schrad indulges in sweeping stereotypes of liquor vendors, whom he reflexively describes as “unscrupulous” or “predatory.” The liquor joints of the time, he emphasizes, were nothing like Sam Malone’s “cozy, respectable” bar on Cheers, “where everybody knows your name” and the proprietor is “like a therapist or best friend” who makes sure his customers get home safely when they overimbibe.
The man in charge of the village kabak in 19th century Russia, in contrast, was a “shyster” who “became the primary interface between the peasan
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