Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” (2011)

Ken Burns shows how the 18th amendment was an epic failure in terms of moralistically good intentions leading to tragically unintended consequences.

The technique of zooming into and out of a still photo — as well as panning around it — has come to be known asthe Ken Burns effect. It creates the illusion of the photo being animated.

Among his many wonderful documentaries, my favorite is Prohibition. I love how he explores the events and zealots that brought about the 18th amendment to the US Constitution followed by the unforeseen collateral damage to the rule of law, the social fabric, and faith in institutions like church and government. All of these outcomes motivated people of common sense around the country to unite to unite and kill the amendment a mere 13 years after its passage.

Burns’ film also frequently suggests that while on the surface Prohibition was a fight between “the wets and the drys” it can also be seen as a proxy battle where the real, underlying conflicts were to a considerable degree around issues pitting:

  • Native-born vs. newcomers
  • Rural vs. urban dwellers
  • WASPS vs. well, everyone else
  • Religious fundamentalists vs. progressives
  • Voices for law and order vs. advocates of civil liberties

Does any of this sound familiar in today’s news cycle?